Friday, March 29, 2013

“Life Is Becoming Like The World Of Islam”

“Life Is Becoming Like The World Of Islam”

                                                                           Saeed Naqvi

Good poetry sums up powerful emotions which people experience but cannot articulate. A friend in Pakistan has sent me a couplet which does open doors bringing in the light or, atleast, providing relief from seemingly interminable suffocation.

“Ek lamha to miley Amn-o-sukoon ka yaa Rab.
Zindagi Aalam e Islam hui jaati hai.”
(Not a moment of peace, Oh God, no serenity, no calm.
Life is beginning to resemble the world of Islam)

In other words the world of Islam, in its present condition, is to the poet Manzar Bhopali, an experience outside himself even though the poet is obviously a Muslim by birth.

The couplet under review does not for a moment suggest that the poet is giving hints of a possible defection from his faith. He has simply separated himself from “Alam-e-Islam” and placed himself at a vantage point to take a comprehensive look at it. It is then that he executes a remarkable simile.

“The weariness, the fever and the fret” was Keats’ description of “our condition” which was in dismal contrast to the full throated music of the nightingale.

Raghupati Sahai Firaq Gorakhpuri has a different simile for human suffering:
“Is daur mein zindagi bashar ki
Beemar ki raat ho gaee hai.”
(Human life these days has become the endless night of a patient tossing and turning in high fever.) The fever is not the passing flu, but terminal tuberculosis common in Firaq’s youth. The image is not dissimilar to the “wariness, the fever and the fret”.

But no poet in history has over held up Aalam-e-Islam” as the mirror to man’s existential hopelessness.

My sense is that something new has been said in very simple words and to which the silent majority in the Muslim world would respond with thunderous applause. The verse contrives an exit route from a disagreeable reality, an entrapment in forced homogenization. This has been imposed on Muslims by a lethal mixture of televised war, particularly the war on terror, possibly in unwitting implementation of Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations.

I have grown in the knowledge that any talk of Muslim homogeneity in India is false: the Mapillas from Malabar are different from Labbais in Tamil Nadu or Bengali Muslims. Language and local culture trump religious links.

Inder Gujral as Prime Minister invited me to Bangladesh because he felt a Muslim in his entourage would go down well in a Muslim country. Never in my life have I felt more lonesome with my Islam. The Bengalis, on both sides, led by the late Nikhil Da broke out in Tagore and Nazrul Islam, licking their fingers on Illich Maach, leaving a marginalized Muslim from Lucknow in the shadows.

Gujral and I had momentarily forgotten an elementary truth: the very emergence of Bangladesh was the triumph of linguistic regionalism over Islam.

Globally the Islamic world is even more disparate – stretching from the Maghreb to Pakistan’s borders with India, then around the Indian Ocean to South East Asia. Also, North Africa to the nations along the Sahel.

War and conflicts have been set up in most of these countries. I know all about colonialism, imperialism, capitalism’s greed, the do-or-die quest for mineral resources and strategic advantage. These interests cannot be defeated in the battlefield because Muslim Monarchs and sundry leaders have sought shelter from their own people under the Western umbrella. Since these umbrellas are in tatters – witness Cyprus, Greece, Italy and others yet in denial, the wave of violence will get more intense.

Aalam-e-Islam is ironically Darul Harb today or Area of Conflict thanks to the Muslim leaders sitting on Western laps with pacifiers in their mouths.

A fight is being imposed on you. They know that you will be provoked one day and join the fight because of the injustices heaped on the Umma. But which Umma? Who from the great Umma is there to wipe the tears from the eyes of the little Rohingya children whose shacks were burnt in a fierce land grab which has been given an ethnic colour?

As for Indian Muslim, the situation has changed radically. Before 9/11 it was our domestic quarrel, a family affair. Now the fingers on the levers of the machinery fighting what is sometimes a phantom war on terror, are not always exclusively ours. This is one more way to keep India in the global loop. Damn the internally divisive consequences!

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Friday, March 22, 2013

Media’s Role As Foreign Affairs Impinge On National Politics

Media’s Role As Foreign Affairs Impinge On National Politics

                                                                                                       Saeed Naqvi

If proof were required, the DMK-Congress spat on the Sri Lanka related vote at the UN Human Rights Council has once again provided it. Foreign Affairs will increasingly impinge on national politics.

It follows, therefore, that conditions be created for electorate to be educated, made conversant with nuances of foreign affairs.

The burden for this responsibility should have fallen on the ample shoulders of the electronic media which opened up along with the economy in 1993. But it shrugged off this responsibility for a variety of reasons.

In this context, an inexplicable amnesia appears to have gripped Doordarshan which should have stood centre stage at a time when the world was observing the tenth anniversary of the Anglo-American invasion and occupation of Iraq in March 2003.

CNN had established itself as the pioneer in bringing a war into the world’s drawing rooms during the Operation Desert Storm in February 1991. BBC, having been beaten in this operation by the transatlantic cousin, pulled itself out of this reversal and, within two months, launched the BBC-World Service TV.

CNN and BBC became part of the war effort during the 2003 invasion, giving currency to the expression “embedded journalists”. Al Jazeera, I recall, had made a debut. So unpopular was it with the US Generals in charge of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, that the Qatar owned channel’s offices in Kabul and Baghdad were bombed.

The effect of Al Jazeera coverage tended to mobilize Afghan and Arab nationalism against US occupation. It had thrown the monkey-wrench in the propaganda war the twin alliance had planned for the two theatres. It was only in the wake of the so called Arab Spring that the Amir of Qatar, fearing for his own throne because of the winds of change in the region, placed the credibility of Al Jazeera at the disposal of the Western action in Libya and Syria, to boost the dwindling credibility of CNN and BBC. In so doing, Al Jazeera has compromised whatever credibility it had built up.

What DD had done under its Director General, Yaqoob Quraishi, was to set aside a prime time slot for an hour every day and given a group of journalists, camera units, technical hands total independence. The project had all round support from the establishment for a simple reason: Indian journalists must be witness to a major war in a vital region. Senior Indian correspondents were scattered across Iraq, the Kurdish areas, Basra, Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Paris, London, Washington.

Never in the history of Indian journalism had a war in foreign lands been covered so comprehensively.

As soon as you mention “foreign coverage” the knee jerk response from major channels is: “foreign affairs” does not fetch us TRP ratings”. Here is an occasion, the 10th anniversary of the Iraq war, when DD can nail a lie. Amitabh Bachchan’s Kaun Banega Crorepati had the highest ratings those days. Iraq war coverage matched those figures.

Some of the stories brought out truths which would have remained hidden had Satish Jacob, Sankarshan Thakur, Syed Kazmi, Harinder Baweja, Vaiju Naravane in Paris, Sanjay Suri in London, not searched for the unexplored angle.

Triumphalist choreography attended the pulling down of Saddam Hussein’s statue at Baghdad’s Firdous Square, outside Palestine hotel. Ragae Omar of the BBC, an outstanding TV reporter otherwise was unfortunately commandeered by headquarters to produce high decibel commentary to coincide with the pulling down of the statue. “Oh, they are coming from all directions……. The Iraqi people rejoicing in the moment of triumph.” Let the truth be told: Iraqi people did not some out dancing on the streets. In any case the statue itself was not pulled down by the crowds. A US marine placed a thick noose around Saddam’s head and the rope was pulled by a crane to cause the statue to tilt over. The crowds were mostly waiters from Palestine hotel and other bystanders.

In between, Vice President Dick Cheney was to appear on TV, exhorting the people of Iraq who, alas, would just not materialize.

To save the situation Ayatullah Baqar ul Hakim’s help was sought to mobilize the Shias of Sadr city, a Shia ghetto on the outskirts of Baghdad. That is when the Shias came out in large numbers, desecrating Saddam’s posters.

In his speech, Cheney thanked the “Religious leaders” for saving a triumphal choreography from becoming a total flop.

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Friday, March 15, 2013

Egypt’s President Morsy Comes Calling

Egypt’s President Morsy Comes Calling

                                                                   Saeed Naqvi

These are not cheerful times for South Block in its dealings with neighbours or nations as distant as Italy. But there is a whole range of countries, in the Arab world which have traditionally been warm to New Delhi and who have been sending senior envoys to plead their respective cases and seek Indian support bilaterally and in multilateral forums.

In this sequence, a visit of considerable importance is by Egypt’s president, Mohamed Morsy early this week.

It would be churlish even to register negatively the fact that he will also visit Pakistan. He is a duly elected leader of his country after the so called Arab Spring ushered in some dramatic changes. These have since been successfully resisted by the Kingdoms and the Sheikhdoms in the region.

There are two broad problems Morsy has to contend with as he navigates his nation through a turbulent transition. First Egyptian culture and civilization are in conflict with Egyptian politics. The circumscribed “Muslim Brotherhood” format does not sit easy on its secular character.

The other problem is that the country’s electoral democracy is not yet on constitutional tracks which have been validated by the courts. This is why Parliamentary elections which were to be held in April 22 have been postponed.

In the course of talks with Morsy, the tricky one for New Delhi to handle may well be Cairo’s quest for greater co ordination on Syria. There will be a distinct Arab nuance to Cairo’s stand on that issue.

Recently the Arab League meeting at its headquarters in Cairo decided to give the Syrian chair at the League to the Syrian opposition. That Lebanon always abstains on any vote taken on Syria, reflects the Lebanese reality: the nation is divided on the issue.

Cairo’s position on Syria is that President Bashar al Assad appoint someone who can lead the negotiations with the opposition.

The question, ofcourse is, which opposition? According to UN Envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi there are 148 small and large groups fighting the central authority inside Syria. Is there even a ghost of a chance of a coherent opposition emerging from this motley crowd?

New Delhi wants Syria’s territorial integrity preserved and a negotiated end to the unspeakable violence visited upon the country.

One consideration comes into play in both, New Delhi and Cairo’s relations with Teheran. Neither would like to impair their relations with the GCC countries which, needless to say, stand to lose greatly should hostilities break out in the region – by accident or design.

Just as Syria will figure in Morsy’s talks, so was it at the top of the agenda with the speaker of the Iranian Majlis, and the Foreign Secretary of Turkey.

There is little doubt that a great deal of Syria’s current tragedy has been heaped upon it by massive external support to internal discontent.

Turkey’s problems are potentially severe too. These will become clear as time passes by.

The country was cruising along smoothly with an economy so much stouter than its European neighbours that the urge to enter Europe had given way to a national self confidence, sans Europe. Ironically, it had gained enormously by following on all the conditions preparatory to its entry into Europe. Towards that end, its democracy, ecology, economy, human rights, relations with neighbours had all improved.

At the time that Europe was in painful economic decline, Turkey looked by comparison, an extremely attractive place. Even the de facto autonomy of the Kurdish north of Iraq was open turf for Turkish business involved in mega projects.

A “simulated” distancing from Israel had given it some leeway in the Arab street. Relations with Iran were so good as to be potentially useful as a line of communication with the US.

True, a destabilized Syria would be a matter of grave concern to Turkey. The countries share a long border. What makes little political sense is the mounting evidence that Turkey allowed itself to be the earliest conduit for arms and men to the Aleppo and areas around it.

Apparently, Tayyip Erdogan could not resist the temptation of revealing himself as a ranking Muslim Brotherhood leader who had only toned down his Islamic credentials to fool Turkey’s urban elite and the Army, reared in a culture of uncompromising secularism, not dissimilar to what obtained in Damascus before the current crisis was loosened upon it.

This was stressed in the letter from President Assad carried by his senior adviser Bouthaina Shaaban for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. President Assad has also requested the Prime Minister to lead an initiative by BRICS for peace in Syria.

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Friday, March 8, 2013

Hugo Chavez: An Icon For The Wretched Of The Earth

Hugo Chavez: An Icon For The Wretched Of The Earth

                                                                                            Saeed Naqvi

Strange that I should remember the incident in the wake of Hugo Chavez’s death.

After the six nation summit in Ixtapa, Mexico, in August 1986, I found myself in the distinguished company of John Kenneth Galbraith. We were being driven to the airport after the summit. Prof. Galbraith, who was invited by Rajiv Gandhi as the principal intellectual resource at the Anti Nuclear Weapons Summit, was disappointed with his interactions with the Argentineans and Mexicans who were in attendance.

He thought they were out of touch with the broad historical trends in their region. Either there is prosperity going hand in hand with massive repression. Or there “will be” prosperity on one hand and popularity on the other. “They will clash too”.

Just then our car stopped at the traffic lights. Two bare bodied young men approached us, their mouths full of petrol which they ignited and breathed out frightening flares of blue flame. The driver rolled down the glass and gave them some money.

“That is not some quaint culture”, Galbraith said. “That is the consequence of massive maldistribution..…..of land.”

Mexicans eking out a risky existence at traffic intersections was what I saw 25 years ago. I see their exact replica at our street intersections today: scrawny, little boys and girls doing perfect cart wheels in crawling traffic. This is the progeny of traditional “Nats” or village-fair acrobats who have been put out of work by the invasion of TV in rural areas.

The miracle of Hugo Chavez was that both those cruel images of the marginalized were pushed out from Venezuela’s traffic lights and intersections. The marginalized had found their messiah, even as the entrenched vested interests in their plush homes sought American help to retard this enormous status reversal. This is exactly what Galbraith had predicted. He was clearly extrapolating from the then ongoing Nicaraguan experience where Daniel Ortega was leading the Sandinistas against the Contras fighting a rearguard action for entrenched interests. The Contras were being helped by the United States.

In a sense Chavez had an easier time because he was not trapped, as Ortega was, in Cold War considerations. Moreover, Chavez had vast hydrocarbon wealth to support his system of distributive justice, a socialist state tied to electoral democracy.

A great deal of his unparalleled charisma derived from his sincerity in the service of the wretched of the earth. The heart rending photographs of people breaking down, crying inconsolably have not been seen in recent times. I remember family elders describe scenes of national sorrow on a comparable scale when Mahatma Gandhi was shot dead.

In style and substance he derived a great deal from his undisputed Guru – Fidel Castro. Ofcourse, he adopted the classical formula: he must be seen to be pitted against larger than life forces he was fighting in the cause of his people. He played the David against the American Goliath much to the applause of people across Latin America and beyond.

Unlike the Middle Eastern leaders brought down by the West, Chavez could never be demonized easily because of his unbroken chair of electoral victories.

It would be absurd to extract lessons for India from the Venezuelan situation. But there is something to be noted about the Cuban-Venezuelan infection taking a tenacious hold on large parts of Latin America. Anti incumbency can be bucked by pro people policies.

Take Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Brazil for instance. His distance from neo liberal, pro poor policies have enabled him to win two terms himself and another for his nominee. Even though the “zero hunger” scheme in the first term ran into administrative difficulties, schemes of cash transfers by the federal government to mothers from the poorest segment, provided they had proof that their children go to school and regularly have their health checked, have benefited 12 million households.

Evo Morales of Bolivia, is in his second term already. He was first elected President in December 2005 with 53.7 percent of the popular vote. In a referendum two and half years later he won a two-thirds majority. In 2009, Morales won by 63 percent. Chavez was to him what Castro was to Chavez.

Likewise, Rafael Correa, the Ecuadorian President and Federico Franco, of Paraguay, are all part of a rapidly left leaning Latin American consensus.

Initially it all seemed high decibel anti Americanism but, on close examination, the trend offers critiques of capitalism many American thinkers like Joseph Stiglitz also offer.

Times are a changing, quite certainly. Chavez is a globally lamented hero and in another part of the world, the much demonized figure of Stalin is slowly being brought into focus in a positive hue. Stalingrad is gradually being resurrected as Stalingrad. Reverting to Galbraith, the Acquisitive Society, may well be in the process of losing some of its competitive edge.

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Friday, March 1, 2013

US Leaving Afghanistan? There Is Plenty Of Time For Script To Change

US Leaving Afghanistan? There Is Plenty Of Time For Script To Change

                                                                                                                         Saeed Naqvi

The 24X7 channels, whose interest in foreign affairs is usually confined to their declaring war on Pakistan presumably in pursuit of ratings, took my breath away the other day when they delved deep into caverns and, in one audacious burst of investigative journalism, held aloft Obama’s new Secretary for Defence, Chuck Hagel’s 2011 video interview at Oklahoma’s Cameron University, in which he had said a few things about India.

The former Senator from Nebraska had said “India has over the years financed problems for Pakistan.” So, what is new? Gen. Stanley McChrystal, former Commander of US forces in Afghanistan was critical even of India’s development works in Afghanistan because the goodwill so generated causes gripes in Pakistan. Gen. David Petraeus talked of India’s “cold start” doctrine causing nervousness in Islamabad.

The same channels were in convulsions when Richard Holbrooke’s Af-Pak designation had a hidden “K” word attached to it. The late Mani Dixit thought he had buried Robin Raphel’s career by creating an almighty row on her having expressed doubts on Kashmir’s status. But I thought Ms. Raphel was very much around during Hillary Clinton’s term as Secretary of State. And, if the Americans are talking to the Taleban, her experience with this lot is unmatched.

Reverting to the noisy discussion chastising Hagel for what he said years ago and slotting it exactly at the time when the Senate was deciding on his nomination made us look like sidekicks to the principal lobbies who have been opposing his nomination.

Meanwhile neither Chuck Hagel nor John Kerry, the new Secretary of State, will find it easy to sketch a credible exit strategy from a war which according to Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz has already cost $700 billion. Surely this vast expenditure has to be explained in terms of some gains for Washington.

Ever since the Taleban were ousted from Kabul in October 2001, the US has shifted goalposts with such frequency that very little credibility attaches to its announcement of intentions. Remember, the first Bonn Conference set up a “provisional” government under President Hamid Karzai. Nine years later, on July 20, 2010 at the Kabul conference convened by the UN, Karzai obtained a mandate until 2014.

Where will he go after 2014, which is just over the horizon? It cannot be anybody’s case that in this one year, a President who for security reasons cannot leave the Palace, will rapidly win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people and mingle among them?

The silver lining I spot in the Afghan claustrophobia maybe the meeting of the major powers just held at Almaty to set nuclear talks with Iran on steady tracks. Can there be a meaningful US withdrawal from Afghanistan so long as Iran remains a black hole in the design. Can a country which has a 936 kms border with Iran really see the US vacate the theatre without being on talking terms with Teheran. Unless a key is found to open that lock, it seems a trifle illogical to expect American presence in Afghanistan to scale down substantially.

New Delhi is extremely skeptical of the US placing its eggs in the Taleban basket and leaving the basket in Pakistani care. This incidentally is not a new US approach.

A steady stream of US policy makers have been meeting officials and opinions makers in New Delhi with variations on the same theme. They told New Delhi that the Afghan Taleban do not trust Pakistan, specifically because the ISI has been manipulating them for decades.

Other interlocutors have also argued that India has had excellent relations with Pushtoons traditionally and should therefore sign in on the talk-to-Taleban agenda. But has Indian, Iranian, Russian, Tajik (all with CIA help) co-ordination to oust Taleban from Kabul created a permanent breach in the Pushtoon’s ancient ties with India? Afghanistan (Pushtoons most of all) has suffered so much continuous trauma over the past decades that it probably has no space in the heart to nurse grievances about the Northern Alliance interlude.

The dreamy scenario of leaving Afghanistan with Taleban as the most influential group has several flaws attending it, but two can be pointed out.

When Mohammad Daoud Khan was killed in the Saur Revolution in 1978 paving the way for Afghan Communist (Khalq) leader Noor Mohammad Taraki to take over as Prime Minister, Afghan history took a turn many do not realize. For the first time in 200 years a Durrani was replaced by a Ghilzai Pushtoon. By installing Karzai, a Populzai, the International Community unwittingly reinstated a branch of the Durrani clan.

Taleban are mostly Ghilzais and will seek their place in the sun. Should events take this turn, civil conflict cannot be avoided with Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras arrayed on one side. The intra Pushtoon strife may appear manageable in the face of such formidable ethnic opposition. But the inter-ethnic divide will proceed inexorably towards a state which is equidistant from Kabul and Islamabad and where Pushtoons reside, exactly as the Frontier Gandhi Khan Abdul Ghaffar had predicted.

Does American departure really seem like a stabilizing voyage?

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