Friday, December 28, 2012

A New Year Gift To Syria: A Possible Agreement?

A New Year Gift To Syria: A Possible Agreement?

                                                                                    Saeed Naqvi

The New Year promises to be better for the Syrian people because diplomacy, not conflict, appears to be coming on top. The brazen indifference to the question “what after Bashar al Assad?” appears to be giving way to sober reflection on just that point.

Remember Hillary Clinton waving her hand in one, big arc to exhort the Syrian leader: “get out of the way, Assad!” And this, soon after her performance in Tripoli: “I came, I saw and he died!” That tone is missing in recent Western statements.

The US, Europe, Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia on the one side and Russia, China and Iran on the other, are inching their way backwards to resurrect the six point Geneva declaration of June 30.

The US Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has been meeting relevant leaders. It was on the margins of OECD summit in Dublin, that Brahimi, Foreign Ministers of Russia and the US discussed what were later leaked as “creative” new ideas for peace in Syria.

There is in this turn of events considerable disappointment for lobbies who have sought regime change from day one of the Syrian crisis, atleast since the summer of 2011.

I have been arguing from August of that year that toppling of Assad was not possible in a hasty time-frame for a simple reason. In many ways the two Baathist regimes of Saddam Hussain and Bashar al Assad are mirror images of each other. The US had to occupy Iraq for ten years, kill Saddam Hussain, dismantle the Baath structure before leaving behind the mess that country is today.

How naïve, then, of Western governments and their allies to expect the Syrian regime to fall by a proxy war, fuelling admittedly powerful internal dissent?

Ofcourse, the expanding areas of internal dissent in Syria, totally dependent on foreign funds and arms, did test Russian resolve to a point that, at one stage, it appeared to be cracking.

A highly placed source in Moscow told me last July: “Putin’s stakes are high in Syria but they are astronomically higher in Russia.” His tongue-in-cheek comment implied that Moscow would go as far with Assad as its own interest dictated.

The Supreme header in Iran was sharp in his response. If Russia changed track at this juncture it would lose not one but two Middle Eastern friends: Syria and Iran. The logic was exactly what I had opened this column with – after Assad what?

What negates “remove-Assad-first” strategy is Washington’s very own step of declaring Al Nusra a terrorist organization. Groups under its control have clearly hijacked what was thought to be a resistance movement.

There are reasons why a rethink on Syria is gaining ground in Washington. The US has learnt a bitter lesson in Libya where absence of governance, millions of Qaddafi era weapons in the hands of quarrelling tribes, growing extremism, all climaxing in the murder of the US ambassador, have cumulatively shaken the American military-intelligence community.

The US is entering its trickiest phase in the Af-Pak region, where elections are due in both, Pakistan and Afghanistan just around the time Washington has set for its troops to depart. Can troops depart without an overt or covert understanding with Iran which has a long border with Afghanistan? Rubbing Iran’s nose in Syria would be self defeating on that count, among others.

Obama in his second term would have his eyes set on a place in history as a world statesman rather than a President aiming only for a second term. He has already hinted at his preferred trajectory in Foreign Affairs by ushering in John Kerry as Secretary of State.

It would have been difficult for Hillary Clinton to revert, to the Geneva Plan of Kofi Annan’s which talks of a “Syrian led” transitional government, without insisting on Assad’s removal.

When asked at a Press conference, Lavrov said: Assad will not go even if Russia and China ask him to. An assertive Assad told Brahimi in their last meeting that the regime will talk to the opposition provided they do not insist on imposing Shariah law on secular Syria. Also, the opposition must accept Damascus’s stand never to sign an agreement with Israel until the Jewish state returns all Syrian lands. This strikes at the heart of a possible entente with Israel which Muslim Brotherhood groups from Tunisia to Turkey have reportedly conceived at the conference with the Syrian opposition held in Istanbul in April.

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Friday, December 21, 2012

Does The Congress Confront The BJP Or Condone It?

Does The Congress Confront The BJP Or Condone It?
                                                                                            Saeed Naqvi

Elections in Himachal Pradesh were, in context and content, totally different from Gujarat. Virbhadra Singh’s generally untainted image drove the Congress to victory. It is interesting that the BJP, defeated in this election, does not have a “communal” persona in the state. There is just no Muslim presence in the state to generate a need for communal politics. A BJP minus communalism is a unique phenomena.

In the two Hill states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, there is another detail worth noting: a Thakur will be the Chief Minister in one and a Brahmin in the other with more or less regular frequency.

Gujarat is a totally different story. I wonder if it is all that ironical, but the land of Mahatma Gandhi has always lent itself willingly to communal violence. Frontier Gandhi Badshah Khan parked himself at Gujarat Governor Shriman Narayan’s house in Ahmedabad for weeks to monitor the aftermath of the 1969 riots which left him in a state of shock.

Anti Sikh riots, the 1993 Mumbai riots and countless others could not have happened without State help, but Narendra Modi, in 2002, raised the pattern of rioting to state sponsored genocide. The Hindu consolidation thus managed, became the base on which he structured an efficient system of administration which the country’s major industrialists, the media and, by sheer incantation, others, have declared as being terrific.

There must be something to it otherwise Modi would not have won three elections in a row. With each victory, every chant of “lets move on”, Time, the great healer, has made the memory of 2002 that much more faint. As temperate texts teach us: in geological time, graves disappear, making space for Man’s other works.

The debate on the Gujarat verdict is interesting. In the grand pageant of democracy, Secular India and Saffron India, are arguing and jousting, even as inch by inch the area of overlap between the two sides grows, like lengthening shadows over a pitch.

It is a largely intra-Hindu tussle, a debating spectacle which the world’s second largest Muslim population is watching increasingly from the sidelines.

The current Congress line is: if it speaks up for the Muslims, the Hindu starts drifting away. It is this mindset which caused the Congress in the recent campaign not to mention 2002; it did not point fingers at Modi’s candidates who participated in the carnage. In brief don’t provoke the Hindu.

Has the Congress forgotten how from having two seats in 1984, the BJP has become the party which consistently threatens the Congress? Some common facts to refresh the memory.

When Rajiv Gandhi came to power in December 1984 with an unprecedented 404 seats in a House of 545, advisers like Arun Nehru thought there was enough in the bank to take a few risks.

In October 1984, Hindu radical groups had launched an agitation in Ayodhya to “open the locks” of the Ram temple. The temple was claimed on the same spot where the Babri mosque stood. Note one false step after another.

In February 1986 an over confident Congress opened the locks to please the Hindus. Then, to humour the Muslim, Rajiv Gandhi upturned the Supreme Court verdict on the Shah Bano case. A supposedly ambidextrous policy caused the party to fall between stools. It continued to compound the blunder by allowing the foundation of the Ayodhya temple to be laid exactly on the spot where the VHP wanted it. Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao carried this policy to new heights by sleeping through the demolition of the Babri Masjid, causing the Muslim vote to walk out on masse.

That is where the two parties stand to this day, locked in slow moves, like wrestlers, each trying to tire the other out.

Is there a way out for the Congress? Ofcourse there is. Shed the low politics of dishonesty and deceit which only enables the cockroaches around the leadership to survive as a coterie even as the fortunes of the party dwindle. The cockroach will survive under the furniture even when the leadership is in the opposition.

The party must rediscover its élan. It must stand on a liberal, genuinely secular platform and be prepared, if need be, to lose an election, remembering the Biblical paradox: “He who loses shall gain”.

Otherwise, in years to come, the schoolboy rhyme will be apt for the two parties.

In form and feature, face and limb,
                  One grew so like the other,
That folks were utterly confused
                  ‘tween him and his twin brother!

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Saturday, December 15, 2012

Ravi Shankar: From Yehudi Menuhin To Woodstock

Ravi Shankar: From Yehudi Menuhin To Woodstock
                                                                                       Saeed Naqvi

Pandit Ravi Shankar’s worldwide popularity derived from his musical genius ofcourse, but also from his exceptional cosmopolitanism. Sixty years ago, Amjad Ali Khan’s father, Sarod Maestro Hafiz Ali Khan, would not allow his music to be recorded because it would be “played at paan shops which would debase it”.

That was courtly exclusiveness but also parochialism of a very high order.

Ravi Shankar took classical music away from this restrictive attitude. He carried it to every corner of the globe. He could do so because he had, as they say, “chosen his parents with care”. His father was a much travelled lawyer, a Bengali settled in Varanasi. Bengali settlements along the Ganges is an exquisite pattern of migrations which lurk in Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy and for which Ravi Shankar provided the music.

Why Ray chose the other great sitar player, Vilayat Khan, for his remarkable lyric in Cinema, Jalsaghar, is a question well worth asking Sandip, Ray’s son.

Another advantage Ravi Shankar had over his contemporaries were his travels to the West as part of his eldest brother, Uday Shankar’s dance troupe. The lilt of dance in his music can be sourced to that experience.

“I was young and handsome and enjoyed walking the Latin Quarter in Paris in my three-piece suit, with a cigarette dangling from a fancy holder.” Yes, Ravi Shankar could be mistaken for a show-off, but such narrations were generally laced with a naughty sense of humour, an impish grin, exposing a perfect set of teeth and a well shaped mouth, and eyes which were both penetrating and mischievous. His slight frame did not come in the way of his being a captivating presence and quite conscious of that fact.

He had a natural gift of making connections and charm which he could turn on at will.

When Dr. Narayana Memon, a Veena player and Director General of All India Radio, organized an East West Music Festival in the 60’s, the stellar attendance included Yehudi Menuhin, Ravi Shankar and Vilayat Khan. Evidently, Yehudi and Ravi Shankar had met earlier. In the course of these interactions, Ravi Shankar had made the connection.

Lord Harewood, the moving spirit behind the Edinburgh Music Festival, a friend of both Narayana Menon and Yehudi Menuhin, had Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan ferried to Edinburgh where, for the first time, the two left an abiding impression on the audience, indeed on world music.

Sarod Maestro Ali Akbar, by universal consent the finer musician, would by himself have been lost without Ravi Shankar, much the man of the world, holding his hand in a completely new cultural space.

Introducing Indian classical music to Western classical circles was certainly Ravi Shankar’s contribution. But soon, his yen for public relations overreached itself.

While Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was keeping the Beatles in his thrall at his Chaurasi Kutia, Ashram on the Ganges in Rishikesh in 1968, Ravi Shankar could not resist the temptation of high voltage publicity that the Woodstock music festival offered in 1969.

The great Tabla player, Allah Rakha used to close his eyes in embarrassment whenever he was asked about his and Ravi Shankar’s appearance on the High Stage at Woodstock. While Ravi Shankar tuned his sitar, the Hippie enthusiasts below, celebrated the occasion by resorting to such copious love making that Ravi Shankar and Allah Rakha quickly packed their instruments and left the venue in a daze.

Despite Ravi Shankar’s growing disenchantment with the non-classical sector of Western music, he made space for Beatle George Harrison’s persistent interest in the sitar. Some Beatle numbers like Norwegian Wood have been composed on the sitar but the quality of music does not quite justify instruction at Ravi Shankar’s feet.

Why musicians of Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar’s class should find California more compelling than India is surprising. Did the nightmare of earning a pittance from All India Radio concerts in the 50s and 60s psychologically dislocate them? Financial gain alone cannot explain the lure of the West. It is just possible that great artists transcend national boundaries, M.F. Hussain for his reasons and Ravi Shankar for his. They become truly global citizens.

Mir Taqi Mir lamented:
“Kab talak tung rahein sheher
                          Ki deewaron mein?”
(How long should I remain constrained in the walls of this city?)

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Friday, December 7, 2012

A Hundred Million Muslims In Search Of A Party

A Hundred Million Muslims In Search Of A Party

                                                                                  Saeed Naqvi

The more the communal picture changes since the demolition of the Babri Masjid 20 years ago this week, the more it remains the same. Possibly with one variation: the political insecurity of the Muslim grows with each turn.

The mosque was demolished on December 6, 1992, but the planning for the event had preceded three years earlier. It was a brilliant marketing strategy by Hindutva craftsmen who had outlined the project of casting bricks, some in silver and gold, to be sanctified by the temples of India and eventually reach Ayodhya for the construction of the Ram temple with 108 pillars across two storeys, sprawled over 270 feet, which will be its length, quite in harmony with its 125 feet height.

The passage of the sanctified 2,75,000 shilas or bricks through towns and villages towards Ayodhaya clearly created tension. The Bhagalpur riot of 1989 was a consequence. I happened to be in a village called Chanderi.

Riots in Bhagalpur had broken out on October 24. By October 27, the area was tense enough to warrant the appearance of Major G.P.S. Virk of the Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry Regiment in Sabaur thana overseeing the contiguous settlements of Chanderi and Rajpur.

The two villages have a population of about 2,000 each, of whom about 10% are Muslims. (Remember I am describing the scene as I saw it in 1989, and the riots in Faizabad last week are a replica: in other words nothing has changed.) Rajpur has a ramshackle mosque which even the Chanderi Muslims visit on Fridays. But because of the fear that an aggressive Shila Pujan processions would pass 27,000 Bihar villages, the Chanderi Muslims set up a small shack for a mosque of their own so they would not have to undertake the risky journey across paddy fields to Rajpur for prayers.

In the saffron atmosphere, the emergence of a notional thatch mosque was resented by those high on the heady idea of sanctified bricks devotedly carted for the Ram Temple. Tensions caused the 100 or so Muslims to seek security in numbers. Major Virk shepherded them to the largest Muslim house in the village and, to ensure security, left a posse of policemen to keep watch.

Next morning when Virk returned he was in a state of daze. The Police were missing. The safe house for the Muslims had been gutted. From Chanderi’s central pond, covered with Hyacinth, protruded human parts – hands, legs, heads. The people around the pond denied they had seen anything.

Obviously unnerved by the saffron surge, the Congress instructed its UP Chief Minister Narain Dutt Tewari to arrange for the “Shila Nyas” or stone laying ceremony of the Ram Mandir’s outer walls on the disputed spot demanded by the Hindu extremist, VHP. This, the Congress coyly agreed while publicly denying that it had supervised Shila Nyas on “disputed land”. The sleight of hand became common knowledge.

This, it turned out was part of the party plan. Kicking off the party’s election campaign from Ayodhaya, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had promised to establish “Ram Rajya” in the country. What surprise then that the Shila Nyas was supervised by the Congress, even though the cheery slogans were mounted by the VHP: “This is not the foundation of a temple but of the Hindu Rashtra”.

Would you be surprised that one of the wisest Congressmen I have known, a deep, cultured man, Saiyid Nasir Hussain, sat in his office in the Faizabad Mosque, held his head in the cusp of his hands, and wept: “they have cheated the Muslims”. He then blurted out: “the deal with the VHP had been stuck at the very top.” He knew what he was talking about. “In UP the Congress is finished.” So far he has proved right.

Ofcourse the Ram Janmbhoomi agitation, L.K. Advani’s “Rath Yatra” was a cunning, multipurpose political project – to neutralize the caste forces unleashed by V.P. Singh’s promotion of the Mandal Commission Report giving reservations to the lower castes thus destabilizing the centuries old caste pyramid.

By the same token, Muslims were identified as the OTHER, to help in Hindu consolidation – the ultimate, elusive dream being that of Hindu Rashtra.

With the aggravation of this plot by the Hindu right, a rudderless, post emergency Congress has been living in mortal fear of Hindus leaving the Congress fold. This fear is a function of the Congress being totally out of touch, not having its ears on the ground, and nervously reacting to the BJP propaganda of Muslims appeasement.

How “appeased” the Muslims are, is available in graphic detail in the Sachar Committee report on the socio-economic condition of the Muslims. Not having the guts to implement the Ranganath Mishra Commission report to follow up on the Sachar Committee recommendations, the Congress drifts, until some smart Alecs place in its hands tricks like NREGA or cash transfers.

In non Congress, non BJP circles, it has been known for quite some time that the Congress had donned soft saffron even before P.V. Narasimha Rao slept through the Babri Masjid demolition.

Totally disenchanted with the Congress, which it considers a wilier variation on the BJP, the Muslim has all but abandoned it.

On an experimental basis, the Muslim tried his luck with the SP. But under Akhilesh Singh, a spate of anti Muslim riots in UP have been unnerving. Some in detail resembling the carnage in Chanderi (though on a smaller scale) has left the community something of a political destitute. Chief Minister Akhilesh Singh has not had the time to visit the riot affected people

In the Southern states, the community is relatively well adjusted. It is in the North and West that 100 million Muslims are running helter skelter in search of a party.

Ghalib’s line is apt:
“Chalta hoon thori door har ek
                              Tez rau ke saath,
Pahchanta naheen hoon abhi
                              Raahbar ko main.”
(I join everyone who is ahead in the caravan,
I have not yet recognized the leader who will show me the way)

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