Friday, April 26, 2013

Commemorating 1857: Will People Succeed Where Government Failed?

Commemorating 1857: Will People Succeed Where Government Failed?
                                                                                                  Saeed Naqvi

As the anniversary of 1857 approaches on May 11, my mind goes back in time. In 2006, within two years of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) rule, a high level meeting was held at 7, Race Course Road, residence of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, to chalk out a plan of action to celebrate on a national scale, the 150th anniversary of 1857, India’s first war of Independence, which would fall the next year, 2007.

In my four decades of journalism I have not seen such a galaxy of national and state level leaders, representing every political shade, endorse an extensive agenda without demur. Among those present were Sonia Gandhi, L.K. Advani, Nitish Kumar, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Prakash Karat, A.B. Bardhan and a host of others – academics, poets, artists, senior journalists.

The Prime Minister in his concluding remarks said the occasion be used to celebrate “our diversity, our liberalism, our civilizational inheritance and the values of integrity and service to man that defined the national movement.”

The Prime Minister made special mention of the role played by the “Rani of Jhansi who fought against British attempts to implement gender biased laws of inheritance.”

The official briefing dwelt on the suggestion that Pakistan and Bangladesh should be included in celebrating 1857. Noted Gandhian, Nirmala Deshpande’s idea was particularly well received. She suggested that soil should be brought from Bahadur Shah Zafar’s “mazaar” in Yangon for a memorial in Delhi’s Mehrauli where the poet-King had marked the “two yards of land” for his grave near the shrine of Sufi Saint Khwaja Bakhtiar Kaki, disciple of Moinuddin Chishti of Ajmer.

With so much bipartisan support, implementation of ideas appeared to be feasible. But as I embarked on a script for TV, taking up the Rani of Jhansi trail at the very outset, I received the first big shock.

Her flag or Insignia, with Hanuman embroidered on it, came into British hands after the valiant Rani fell in battle. The British Army High Command placed the priceless tapestry in the custody of Rajputana Rifles. As I pursued the story I found that this, most valuable of trophies kept at the Raj-Rif Centre had been “stolen” some years ago. The Insignia of Rani Lakshmi Bai stolen from the Indian Army?

The next stop in pursuit of this script was equally disturbing. My village, Mustafabad, happens to be in Rae Bareli, where I had, in my childhood, been shown a large tamarind tree within the premises of the magistrate’s office as the symbol of local participation in 1857. Rebellion in this famous district was led by Rana Beni Madho Baksh Singh, the zamindar of nearby Shankarpur. He escorted Begum Hazrat Mahal to Nepal where he was killed fighting the Gurkhas.

Clandestine crucial help in men and material to Beni Madho was provided by Mir Baqar who, along with his 22 supporters, were eventually captured and hanged from the tamarind tree. The bodies were left in this state for three days. My jaw dropped when I reached the location. There was no memorial. The tree had made way for a common electric transformer, next to a gutter.

There was no point pursuing other ideas that had been accepted at the Prime Minister’s meeting because nothing worthwhile was ever implemented. For example: the entire route from Meerut to Delhi’s Red Fort taken by the Indian soldiers, and civilians in their support, be named “Kranti Path” or “Revolution Path”.

Among those present at the meeting, Shashi Bhushan, wrote a stinging letter to the Prime Minister: “It is regrettable that there exist memorials for those who fought for the British, including India Gate at Delhi, but there is no monument for hundreds of thousands killed fighting for freedom.”

After the painful inability of the government and all political formations to be able to make anything of the spirit of 1857, I am heartened by an episode or two recently.

The other day, after a packed hall at the India International Center, had been regaled to an evening of poetry by Nida Fazli the popular Urdu/Hindi poet, I found that most of audience that lingered after the recitation for a conversation with him were mostly from the world of Hindi media. Whatever critics may say of Nida’s poetry, he has emerged as a firm bridge between Urdu and Hindi audiences. “A common language, Hindustani, divided by two scripts” Nida says. An idea tossed up that evening and endorsed by Nida, harmonized with the mood set by his verse.

It focused on May 11 as a day to be commemorated this year. This would kickstart a process that should then be taken up each year. On this date in 1857 soldiers of the British Indian army, after having captured the Meerut cantonment a day earlier, reached Delhi and proclaimed Bahadur Shah Zafar as their leader and Emperor. This was the first pan India uprising of the people – the first war of Indian Independence. Groups of journalists here and there, some political formations, publishers of a new Urdu daily, activist figures like Kuldip Nayar and Justice Rajinder Sachar are on board to commemorate May 11. What has to be devised is an agenda which discards the cliché that secularism has become – a system of merely “tolerating” or “accommodating” each other. This has to be replaced by a secularism of shared aspirations which is what India’s First War of Independence was.

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Friday, April 19, 2013

Nothing Became Musharraf Less Than His Return To Inhospitable Pakistan

Nothing Became Musharraf Less Than His Return To Inhospitable Pakistan

                                                                                                                               Saeed Naqvi

How will the Pervez Musharraf tragi-comedy affect events in Pakistan? To gauge the future, the past should be something of a guide.

Richard Armitage, US Deputy Secretary of State, flew into Islamabad and left Musharraf with no option after the global War on Terror was launched after 9/11: Pakistan would have to join the war on America’s terms.

This imposed a paradox on Musharraf. He was required to exterminate exactly those Jihadists, who had been armed to the teeth by the US, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, since the 1980s, to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. These had been diligently shaped into an Islamist fighting machine. This machine, once a favourite of the Pak army, for a low level conflict in Kashmir for instance, was now required to be destroyed.

So, Musharraf began to play both sides of the street. Occasionally he was found out and had his ears tweaked by Washington.

Washington’s requirements were two fold which, sometimes, dictated distinct approaches. With egg on its face in Iraq, it was important to muffle, terminate stories of rising militancy in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Musharraf had to be spurred on in this war.

Washington’s other requirement grew out of the Republican desire for a magical outcome: namely – end to militancy plus a democratic Pakistan growing into a full blown oak. This could be advertised as an achievement on the eve of the November 2008 US elections.

Some sympathetic souls in the US realized Musharraf was taking too much of the blowback from the Afghan war on himself. That is how the idea grew out of a three way power structure – the President, Army and a Prime Minister who, in this case, was to be Benazir Bhutto.

Just compare the return of Benazir Bhutto with that of Musharraf: both equally botched up. There is a universal delusion that establishments, whether in Islamabad or in Washington, are absolutely on the ball as far as intelligence is concerned. Ofcourse they are not. Otherwise Bhutto would not have been assassinated nor would Musharraf have landed himself in boiling, witches’ cauldron.

But wait a minute. Bhutto’s return was part of a deal between the Army and the US. Which interests had struck the deal with Musharraf?

Remember, when Bhutto’s participation in the February 2008 elections had been cleared, Nawaz Sharif was sent back to Jeddah from the airport. His candidature was initially not kosher. Saudi Arabia pushed for him and thereafter, with his hands tied behind his back, he came up trumps in Punjab and, nationally, second only to the PPP which gained because of sympathy on account of Bhutto’s assassination.

In other words, Sharif won despite the Army and the US being in opposition to him. After all it was Gen. Pervez Musharraf who had ousted him in a coup.

His proximity to the Saudis had also given him access to elements who had mutated into Al Qaeda and Taleban. Since the US was pushing for an all out war against militant Islam, Sharif’s softer tone was not popular with the Americans.

The situation has changed. The US is preparing to withdraw from Afghanistan after stitching up some kind of an arrangement with the Taleban. This is a pipe dream, but on that later. In these circumstances, is Sharif’s chance of remaining a front runner for the May 11 elections a source of comfort to Washington?

There is, however, an awkward complexity. In an atmosphere of rampaging anti Americanism in Pakistan the only way to advance electorally is to be perceived by the electorate to have steered clear of the US. The paradox involved is exquisite: advance on an anti American platform to be able to help Washington find interlocutors influential with the Taleban.

Where does Musharraf fit into this scenario? If he had not become something of a political cipher, he may have helped the Muslim League (Q) to steal some of Sharif’s thunder in Punjab.

Unless the plot is so high and deep as to be beyond the capacity of available instruments to gauge, on the face of it, a homesick Musharraf has returned to everybody’s utter embarrassment.

Armed with faith, Abraham jumped into the fire of Nimrod and found himself wreathed in flowers. Musharraf has leapt into a fire, but it looks increasingly probable that he will emerge wreathed in street dirt.

He deserved better. He had gone farther with both, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh than any Pakistani leader in reaching an agreement with New Delhi. He could not upturn laws but he liberalized conditions of living in Pakistan. There was only a government TV when he took charge. By the time he left, Pakistan had a thriving, lively media which too has turned upon him. He has placed himself in a situation where he cannot be helped even by the Army, of which he was once master.

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Friday, April 12, 2013

“Muslims Attack” Another Revered Shrine In Damascus

“Muslims Attack” Another Revered Shrine In Damascus

                                                                                               Saeed Naqvi

Millions of Muslims will, in the next few days, observe the birth and death anniversaries of Fatima Zehra, Prophet Mohammad’s daughter. But during this period, the world famous shrine of her daughter, Saiyada Zainab, outside Damascus, holy to millions around the world, will be in grave danger. That remarkable chronicler of London’s “Independent”, Robert Fisk, ascribes the danger to “Salafist mortar fire”.

The news some days ago was alarming but the shrine had not been “destroyed”, as extremist propaganda claimed. Let Fisk speak: “Mortars crack and rumble around us but save for a few marble squares, the place (shrine) stands untouched. There’s a T-72 tank down the road and a clutch of government soldiers outside”. But that is the picture today. What’s to come is still unsure.

The mischief that is afoot in Damascus is part of the sequence which caused the destruction of the Bamyan Buddhas and the shrines of Timbuktu. But there is a major difference: Bamyan and Timbuktu were swift acts of vandalism. Damascus, the world’s oldest continuous urban habitation, has been in the eye of the storm for quite some time.

And all of this, even as the Security Council peers over the rampage for nearly two years? Would the world’s leaders have been as insensitive if, say, Santiago de Compostela in Spain were under siege?

Indeed, when an Australian fanatic set fire to the Al Aqsa mosque in the 60s, the Jerusalem municipality organized visits by foreign journalists to demonstrate how Israel had protected the mosque. And they had.

When Michaelangelo’s masterpiece at St. Peter’s, the Pieta, was desecrated, the outrage was global, cutting across religions.

How deafening by comparison this silence on the desecration of Prophet Mohammad’s granddaughter! Should the silence in a large section of the Muslim world surprise us? A frightful reality should not be allowed to be obscured: the perpetrators of the desecration in Damascus claim to be Muslims manufactured specially for the “houris” of paradise.

Remember the folk who threatened Lahore with thunder and brimstone just in case the city celebrated Basant with colour and kite flying? The tradition was declared as un-Islamic by exactly the variety active in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and Mali.

A poet friend of mine derives comfort from the fact that this lot will never inspire literature, only ghastly terror films. While Zainab’s defining role, along with her elder brother Imam Hussain, in the battle of Karbala, in 680 AD, on the banks of the Euphrates in Iraq, has inspired some of the greatest poetry in Urdu literature.

Since Karbala happened barely 48 years after the Prophet’s death, it lent itself not as a mythical, but a live, historic battle between good and evil. It opened up for scrutiny the inherent conflict between ideals and Empire.

Josh Malihabadi, an iconoclast and agnostic, succinctly summed up the meaning of Karbala:
“Koi keh de ye hukumat ke nigehbanon se
Karbala ek abadi jung hai sultanon se.”
(Warn the self appointed keepers of People’s interests
Karbala symbolizes an eternal war against feudalism and injustice)

Much the finest poetry on Karbala is in the form of epics called Marsias which dwell on Hussain, Zainab and their entourage. Men were martyred but the women, like Zainab were, shackled and paraded through the long journey to the Omayyad court in Damascus.

The journey provided Zainab with an opportunity to bring into play her charisma and eloquence. Karbala, which might have remained a story buried on an obscure Iraqi river bank, became a turning point in Islamic history because of Zainab’s exceptional oratory. This gave her the additional title of being the world’s first woman war chronicler.

The manner, in which the battle of Karbala is observed as Moharram every year, bears some resemblance to the way in which Serbs preserve the memory of the battle of Kosovo, 1389. In both instances, “apparent” defeat is celebrated as transcendental or a higher victory. Hussain’s martyrdom at the hands of the Omayyad armies, “cleansed” the faith of the deviations which had crept in within four decades of the “message”. Serbs celebrate the battle of Kosovo because, even though they “apparently” lost, they nevertheless waged such fierce battle that they blocked Turkish armies from advancing into Europe. This was their victory.

Today, even though Kosovo is an independent Muslim country, the Serbian monument of Kosovo and some of the most exquisite monasteries like Decan, are totally secure, protected by the Kosovars along with European military help. Should Decan even be scratched, the reverberations, not only in Serbia but the entire Eastern Orthodox Church will be techtonic.

Why then this helplessness in the ranks of those whose adoration for the valiant Saiyada Zainab is so real? Another point: she brought her brother’s martyrdom to light. But the attack on her shrine is blocked even on websites in most Arab countries. Such tragic irony.

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Friday, April 5, 2013

What If Rahul Has Ten Year Plan To Build Party?

What If Rahul Has Ten Year Plan To Build Party?

                                                                                   Saeed Naqvi

Not more than 200 people select the 5000 or so candidates who are elected as members of Parliament and State Assemblies. Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi, in his 75 minute talk, walking up and down the stage, at the Confederation of Indian Industries, on Thursday, was trying to make a simple point: an abysmal gap exists between the elected representatives and the country’s one billion people.

As opposed to the Parliament and State Legislatures there were 2.4 hundred thousand village Panchayats. It were these that had to be “empowered” as the nodal points most in contact with the people. Legislators and policy makers, have to develop institutional mechanisms to liaise with the Pradhans who implement policy at the village level.

Sensible thought, you would say. But this was not why the Captains of Industry had packed the hall. They had come for hints of economic reforms, his prime ministerial intentions. On both these counts they drew a blank. But none of this distracted the evening show hosts from their fixation: a Rahul Gandhi versus Narendra Modi showdown in the May 2014 General Elections!

The Indian middle class has been encouraged by the media to dream up a falsehood, that the country has miraculously acquired a two party system. This makes for lazy TV shows. Panels on these shows exhaust their lung power on Modi vs Rahul, when neither is a declared Prime Ministerial candidate.

There is, after all, the Karnataka state election next month. These will be followed by elections to Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chattisgarh. If either Rahul or Modi (or both) are launched as star campaigners in these contests, pundits will have some data to legitimately gauge what is going on in the two main political parties. That still leaves out all the regional parties without whose support no government at the centre can be given shape.

It would not be too reckless to assume that the 2014 elections will yield a UPA III or an NDA II. An inversion of these formations is also possible, that is, coalitions supported from the outside by either of the two main parties. The tremendous sense of purpose with which Mamata Bannerjee has set about destroying her own image, opens up the possibility of the Left Front resuming a balancing role. Winning of 49 seats by the CPM out of 60 in Tripura Assembly last month should not be ignored.

Congress General Secretary Janardan Dwivedi’s touching endorsement of a dual power center flies straight into Digvijay Singh’s belief in Rahul Gandhi being projected as the next Prime Minister. This has been his position since 2009.

How does one explain this open tiff? Expectations were low in the Congress prior to the 2009 elections. Manmohan Singh had asked his handpicked economic experts to look for pastures outside the government. He was himself surprised to find himself in harness post 2009.

At this time a three way tussle began between three coteries. Since the Congress’s quantum leap from 145 seats in 2004 to 206 in 2009 was attributed to the Rahul factor, the PM’s men by way of tactic reached out to absorb him in the cabinet. If Rahul were thus contained in the cabinet system, a third power centre would be obviated. This would also be less bothersome to the coterie around Sonia Gandhi. Despite machinations on all sides, the triangle could not be rubbed out.

And now that the post 2014 power structure is being contemplated, the Congress is once again examining various options. Manmohan Singh, not given to rash statements, has himself encouraged a line of speculation in which the “dual power structure” is not ruled out for the third time. This is where Janardan Dwivedi derives his confidence to endorse the Sonia-Manmohan duet.

What does Digvijay Singh do in these circumstances? Rahul Gandhi, just 43, has time enough to design the “Beehive” (as he told the CII) where a billion Indians will busy themselves. He will undertake countless train journeys like the one from Gorakhpur to Mumbai where Girish the carpenter opened his eyes to Indian optimism. This will be the material for his Discovery of India. Remember the Duke in As You Like It? In his idyllic life “exempt from public haunt”, the Duke found “tongues in trees” books in the running brooks and sermons in stones.

Rahul will likewise, not waste his time chatting up the media but build structures of governance reaching the last of the billion Indians in the remotest hamlet.

He will be 48 during the 2019 elections and only 53 for the 2024 election. By that time all other parties will have exposed themselves as rotten. Only the structures Rahul will have built will deliver unto him the absolute majority without which Prime Ministership is a crown of thorns.

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