Friday, June 28, 2013

Mandela And His Comrades Of Indian Origin

Mandela And His Comrades Of Indian Origin

                                                                         Saeed Naqvi

Nelson Mandela striding out of the Victor Vorester prison, outside Cape Town, on a sultry February 11, 1990 will remain etched on my mind as the everlasting image of “Freedom” in the 20th century. “Your piece to camera, Saeed Bhai; your piece to camera please” implored Akhtar Ali Khan, my cameraman. I came back with a start, so absorbed was I in the moment of history I was witnessing.

Later, it took me years of travel as a journalist to fix that historic moment in a broader perspective, both, South African, as well as global.

The role of the last white South African President, F.W. de Klerk in unbanning the African National Congress and taking a decision to release Mandela, cannot be overlooked. The release was preceded by secret Mandela – de Klerk meetings in 1989, even as the cold war was winding down.

White opposition to de Klerk came to a head when Andries Treurnicht, addressed 60,000 ultra rightists at the Voortrekker Monument outside Pretoria. Afrikaans would resort to armed conflict to defend their right to a “White Fatherland”, he thundered. This, soon after the massacre of black protesters at Thabong, near the gold mining town of Welkom, in the Orange Free State. Mandela threatened to call off negotiations unless the police, raised on generations of prejudice, were brought under control. History of the negotiations which preceded Mandela’s release must be accessed to find out so much. For instance, what was the position of Pretoria, Washington and Moscow on South Africa’s nuclear arsenal which, in the event, the African National Congress did not make an issue of?

It is elementary, that the withdrawal of Soviet Troops from Afghanistan in 1989 and the beginning of the secret Mandela-de Klerk dialogue was not just a coincidence. It had become clear that the Soviet Union was doomed but any post Soviet gameplan could not be contemplated so long as the grotesque image of Apartheid dangled from the Western neck like an albatross. But the West continued to drag its feet.

When Rajiv Gandhi led six Commonwealth leaders into a conference in London in 1986 with Mrs. Margaret Thatcher for concerted action against the Apartheid regime, she shrugged her shoulders. “Constructive Engagement” was the West’s chant those days to avert total isolation of the racist superstructure in Pretoria.

Had Mikhail Gorbachev not facilitated the demise of the Soviet Union, would Mandela have been set free when he was set free?

The years 1988-90 leading upto Mandela’s release offered a mixed fare for the world. In Somalia, President Siyad Barre and the opposition Somali National Movement had, between them, killed 50,000 civilians.

The reverberations of the post-Cold War tectonic shifts were felt even on the remote Gruinard Island off the North-West coast of Scotland. In 1942, the British government had embarked on a top secret biological warfare experiment and produced large quantities of Anthrax. In other words, Britain had planned to use Anthrax against Germany atleast three years before Hiroshima was nuked. Well, in the aftermath of the events of 1990, Gruinard was opened up again for sheep grazing.

In India, Punjab was destabilized. The Sri Lankan conflict was casting its shadow on Tamil Nadu where a 1,00,000 Sri Lankan Tamils had crossed over as refugees. The Indian Peace Keeping Force, after having lost over 1,000 soldiers, was returning home, heads bowed.

In West Asia, preparations were underway for Operation Desert Storm after Iraq’s President had obliged by occupying Kuwait. That sequence is still playing itself out in the region. A pity, Mandela will not be around to give us his perspective of the march of global events since his release. A South African journalist asked his hosts quite mischievously the other night: “supposing in his last will and testament, Mandela recommends “Constructive Engagement” with President Hasan Rouhani, President Bashar al Assad and Hasan Nasrallah, would the International community oblige or would it consider these gents worse than the Apartheid regime?”

I was quite precisely the first Indian to travel to South Africa on an Indian passport, specially prepared to cover Mandela’s release. I can therefore report with some certainty that New Delhi at that stage had no clear profile of the million strong Indian diaspora concentrated mostly in the Durban region. There was an overhyped, romantic link with Gandhiji’s long innings in South Africa, but no serious cataloguing of his 21 years in that country. Nice of Mandela that he agreed to re enact the scene at Pietermaritzburg railway station where Gandhi was thrown out from a compartment meant for whites only. It is indeed a dramatic event bringing out the harsh reality of prejudice that Indians faced and on whose behalf Gandhi led his struggle. Gandhi’s struggle, let us be clear, was for Indians, not for black South Africans. A social profile of Indians who invited the young Gujarati barrister from Britain to represent them in the Apartheid courts is missing from this narrative. Gandhi was invited by Gujarati Muslim traders, led by Dada Abdullah, and it is among them that he spent most of his years not just in South Africa but even in Mauritius, where he stopped while travelling to India. In a letter Gandhi writes: “I stayed in Mauritius for about ten days when my boat was lying at anchor. I stayed in the house of some Muslim friends.” I have not seen any research on who these “Muslim friends” were.

When Mandela’s first team of officials, including cabinet ministers was announced in 1994, there were nine important slots taken up by descendents of Gujarati traders. Only Mac Maharaj and Jay Naidoo were of non Gujarati origin. The second most important man in Pretoria, in Mandela’s team, was Ahmad Kathrada. Later, in Thabo Mbeki’s cabinet, the minister in the Presidency was Essop Pahad.

South Block may have had no knowledge of the two but both knew where Ajoy Bhawan, headquarters of the Communist Party of India, was because they had probably spent some of their “underground” days in this building. As members of the South African Communist party in their years of anti apartheid struggle, some comrades in the Mandela and Mbeki cabinets had personally known stalwarts of the Indian communist movement.

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Friday, June 21, 2013

Slips Possible Between Rouhani’s Election And Inauguration In August

Slips Possible Between Rouhani’s Election And Inauguration In August
                                                                                                              Saeed Naqvi

To the various puzzles America pores over has been added one more: Iran’s President elect, Hassan Rouhani. As an opening gambit, he is being described as “moderate”.

It is being speculated that he will be “moderate” on the nuclear issue even though he has deep roots in the country’s conservative establishment whose views on the issue are known and not liked.

Years ago, “moderation” in all discourse concerning West Asia had a distinct meaning. It was an adjectival expression approving of states which were willing to tow the Western line on the Israeli-Palestinian question. The antonym for moderate those days was “rejectionist”. Had Rouhani been around then, he would have been an arch “rejectionist” as he doubtless will be should Palestine ever be allowed to swim into the West Asian ken as an issue.

The obscuring of the principal issue in West Asia, namely Palestine, can, at best, be a tactic. Strategic minds like Turki al Faisal, former Saudi Ambassador to the US, have said so repeatedly. He wrote in the New York Times: Unless the US throws its weight behind “an early two-state” solution for Palestine, “Pariah states like Syria and Iran would gain”.

Turki is not alone in listing Iran in the category of “pariah”. Iranian participation on any debate on the Israel-Palestine issue will immediately invite choice invective from Jerusalem and Washington and, in discreet, deniable whispers, from Riyadh. The rhetoric will immediately be ratcheted up and all the speculation about President-elect, Rouhani’s expected “moderation” will evaporate. He will become the leader of a “pariah state”, part of the “Axis of Evil”.

Iran’s nuclear intentions are among the last of the issues that will ever be settled between the West and the Islamic Republic. And that settlement will not exhaust the formidable agenda dictated by Iran’s strategic vision: it is a major power in the Persian Gulf region. If a dictator like the Shah was accorded that status, why not the Islamic Republic? This is the way Qom thinks.

When the US needed Iranian help in the earliest stages of its occupation of Afghanistan, Washington sent Zalmay Khalilzad as its Persian speaking Ambassador to Kabul. Believe it or not, at one stage Khalilzad was among the list of prospective Presidents of the country.

For his successes in Kabul, Khalilzad was rewarded. He was promoted as ambassador to Baghdad. Since Iran had a long border with Iraq, as it did with Afghanistan, a Teheran friendly envoy was needed.

As expected, Khalilzad set up an impressive, wide ranging agenda with Iran. But, lo and behold, the Deep State in the US pulled the rug from under his feet. Who asked you to engage the Iranians across the spectrum? We want them on the mat only on the nuclear issue. So, like Humpty Dumpty, poor Khalilzad had a great fall!

During Khalilzad’s brief spell, the nuclear issue was posed to block what might well have been a promising normalization process. That is why chants of “moderate, moderate” that have greeted Rouhani in anticipation of his nuclear policy should, at best, be received with a shrug.

Iraq, Arab Spring, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain have all diverted attention from pivotal issues which, in Iranian perception is Palestine and in Western, diversionary projection, the nuclear question.

And now at this moment some of the real issues of immediate concern to both the West and Iran are Afghanistan and Syria.

In Syria, the situation on the ground has swung in favour of the regime. Planes are dropping leaflets over Alleppo, asking the internal opposition to surrender and they are complying. It is in the nature of conflicts in which various states have diverse interests, that the conflict be suitably prolonged so that no one side emerges victorious.

In the final spasms, there will be Israeli provocations in Southern Lebanon and Syrian rockets on the Golan Heights and so on. Yes, between Rouhani’s election and his inauguration in August there is chance of many a slip.

As it is, Rouhani’s election hailed by Supreme leader, Ali Khamenei on the one hand and Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami on the other, consolidates the clergy behind the new leader. There has been no comparably clean election in the Muslim world in recent history except perhaps in Turkey in 2011. Rouhani has been hailed internationally as a leader who provides a moment of hope in a beleaguered region. Turkey’s Tayyip Erdogan on the other hand has spilt the goodwill he had collected.

None of these reports on Iran can be honeyed music to Saudi Arabia and Qatar. How would these two contemplate the run of good luck Iran has had this decade. The removal of Taleban from Kabul, Saddam Hussain’s departure and a Shia-led regime in Baghdad, Huthis in Yemen, Hezbullah in Lebanon, the Shia-Sunni divide in Kuwait, the overwhelming Shia majority in Bahrain, and the new turn of events in Syria are all extremely worrisome for Riyadh and Qatari.

The latter, ofcourse, has egg all over its face because the full blown embassy of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in Doha must be looking very forlorn in the absence of delegations. Americans had very nearly pulled off a first in the annals of diplomatic history – umpiring a dialogue between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Islamic Emirate both claiming control of the same country. And Americans claiming control over both.

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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Savoy Beckons In Summer And In Mussoorie’s Monsoons

Savoy Beckons In Summer And In Mussoorie’s Monsoons
                                                                                              Saeed Naqvi

I had never been advised to visit a hill station in this fashion. The e-mail from an itinerant friend read: “The Savoy in Mussoorie, which was once better than the Savoy on the Strand in London, is promising to recapture its old form when it re opens. Earlier we visited Mussoorie. Now we must visit the Savoy, because Mussoorie is too crowded. Earlier, Savoy was the most elegant hotel in an exquisite hill station. Now Savoy is being conceived as a magnificent resort – complete in every sense of the term – a destination in itself, at a distance from a crowded hill station. What is more it will provide respite from the sizzling heat in summer and an experience of the monsoons – Saawan and Bhadon of our folk songs.” The hyperbole was self evident. But having been denied a summer break from the plains because of mother’s health, we decided to buy the hard-sell, now that my mother was recovering. In fact we found ourselves among the first guests, signing in on June 1, the date of Savoy’s inauguration. The grand garden party (on lawns which were once the hotel’s tennis courts) had, among its many guests, that wonderful chronicler of our times, one whose name is synonymous with Mussoorie – Ruskin Bond.

Yes, the idea of Savoy, as spelt out in my friend’s e-mail, is being realized in stages. The first phase consists in the restoration of 50 rooms – restored like they were when the hotel opened in 1902, the peak of the Raj, just as the railways first reached Dehradun, Edwardian furniture and forests worth of Oak carted up on bullock carts to create the iconic, imperial haunt. When automobiles became available after the First World War, Savoy became the universal rendezvous, not for Tom, Dick and Harry but a category of aspirants a notch above them.

Jawaharlal Nehru, just the recreated Englishman Thomas Babington Macaulay prescribed for the colonies, became a patron, along with other members of the family, including daughter, Indira Gandhi. In fact once, in 1938 to be precise, the British authorities had to request him to vacate the premises because King Zahir Shah of Afghanistan was also in residence. Since Britain’s relations with the King were at a delicate stage, the presence of Nehru at the Savoy was, in imperial perception, loaded with possibilities of intrigue.

Well, I do not wish to list the Emperors, Kings, Viceroys, Princes and sundry sidekicks who stayed here. Nor will I pretend to have fond memories of the place in days of yore. The closest I came to the place was when my father had rented a bungalow on Gun Hill next to Dr. M. Mujeeb, the great author of Indian Muslims, who helped me fill my form for St. Stephens college were, let me add in parenthesis, I was never admitted because my father insisted in keeping me on the straight and narrow by sending me to Aligarh Muslim university from where I ran away. For the rest read my book.

Yes, we did visit the Savoy as a gang of four schoolboys – Vinod Mehta (the hot shot editor), Ashok Kwatra (trying to retire with a French wife in Cheltenham), Azad Ahmad Khan, the richest amongst us and the most generous. We pooled in our pocket money, borrowed some from Azad, and took up residence in an inexpensive hotel to be able to visit the Savoy, peep into the grandest dining hall in the Empire and ofcourse the Writer’s Bar, once boasting of such clientele as Pearl S Buck and, ofcourse, Rudyard Kipling.

We must have looked very silly, teenagers pretending to be much older, in our suits, badly cut by our Lucknow tailors.. Indeed Yeat’s poem on Keats comes to mind: “I see a schoolboy when I think of him, his nose pressed hard against the sweet shop window”. Here there were four such noses pressed hard against the window. It therefore feels nice, now that the Savoy has been resurrected, and my wife and I can legitimately reserve a table in the grand dining room.

We can now afford it in the summer and believe it or not, in the monsoons, because there are enough cunning passages and covered verandahs in the Savoy to keep you in fine fettle, walking indoors. And when the clouds open up, that clear snowline has a divine glow and the lights of Dehradun are like a starlit sky, upside down.

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Friday, June 14, 2013

BJP Can Either Promote Modi Or The NDA

BJP Can Either Promote Modi Or The NDA

                                                                    Saeed Naqvi

When RSS supremo Mohan Bhagwat arrives in the capital on Tuesday to meet L.K. Advani and other BJP leaders, the party faction floating in the clouds after Goa will come down to earth. Ofcourse, the key decision taken at the party’s conclave in Goa will remain unchanged. Narendra Modi will remain the campaign panel chief for 2014, but just as Arun Jaitley and Pramod Mahajan held that position in 2009 and 2004 respectively. In other words, Goa will not look like the beginning of a Modi coronation.

What the Bhagwat-Advani meet will bring into bold relief is also something that has been pretty clear to the panic stricken BJP leaders who trooped into the senior leader’s Prithviraj Road residence on Tuesday and established telephone lines between him and Bhagwat in Nagpur to pronounce a simple message: Advani, at 85, is far from having sung his swan song. We need him to stay in the game, seems to be the voiceless chant of leaders who, in their own deep heart’s core, were denied the limelight in Goa.

The leaders who knelt before him beating their breast – “please don’t go; please don’t go” – were not demonstrating their adoration for Advani. Rather, they saw in his eclipse a shrinking of their room for maneuver, an end to whatever dreams they may have nurtured. And there is no end to their dreams. That Advani himself had grasped this reality comes across in his letter of resignation from party forums. “Most leaders of ours are now concerned with their personal agendas.”

It is extraordinary how the electronic media for months sustained a chant in unison about a gladiatorial combat between Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi. Evening after evening, six faces screamed out of six windows on the TV screen their unprocessed wisdom on the Rahul-Modi contest when no such contest was on the cards.

Digvijay Singh was for Rahul Gandhi as the Prime Ministerial candidate, thus ending the Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh bipolarity at the top. In determined opposition to this line was another Congress General Secretary, Janardan Dwivedi. He thought the bipolar power structure was, for the Congress, a gift from the Gods. So, the Congress need not snicker at the unseemly factionalism in the BJP.

What no one quite expected is the scale of the eruption in Goa: a showdown between the party’s most experienced and its most popular face. In the process, skeletons in a very securely stacked cupboard of the RSS also came rattling down. The RSS supremo is having to intervene in order to restore balance in favour of Advani after his colleagues, Ram Lal and Suresh Soni had tilted the scales for Modi.

The manner in which the media has supported Modi’s current elevation, makes it amply clear that Corporate India supports the move. After all, the nose of the media ends where that of the Corporates begins. But why would Corporate India support a candidate who repels coalition partners in an age when no government can be formed in New Delhi by any party on its own in the foreseeable future?

Corporate India cannot have extended support to Modi simply because he has been extraordinarily hospitable to them in Gujarat. He must have other uses.

He is by all accounts, decisive, firm, strong willed, obstinate, but with many managerial skills too. These could be attributes of a successful manager of a party like the BJP not its Prime Ministerial candidate as some of his ardent supporters would like him to be.

A Prime Ministerial candidate in the coalition era must have one overriding attribute: suppleness and an infinite capacity to give other points of view a patient hearing. These were the qualities that moved Atal Behari Vajpayee up the ladder until he became Prime Minister.

In fact it is useful to recall that in 1999, when the NDA came to power under Vajpayee’s Prime Ministership, Advani was known as the Iron man. When Bill Clinton sent his trusted adviser Bill Richardson to evaluate the NDA leadership on the eve of the US President’s visit to New Delhi, Richardson described Advani as “the intellectual in the NDA”.

Modi may not have Advani’s “intellect” but he has some of the senior leader’s other qualities. Therefore, just as Advani made room which Vajpayee filled, so must Modi have a preferred Prime Ministerial candidate. Who, in other words, will be Modi’s Vajpayee?

A talent for coalitions being totally absent from his DNA, Modi as BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate is only thinkable in the event of the party going it alone, to break out of indecisiveness of the coalition mould, to risk losing, in order to come back on another occasion, taking advantage of the credit accumulated by making a sacrifice of power now. But going alone would be in opposition to Advani’s stated line in recent months, that of NDA plus. A post Advani never resigned from is that of NDA president. NDA plus would entail the BJP toning down its saffron to cast its inclusive net wider. Who knows in the event of a fractured verdict in 2014, Advani’s may be the most acceptable image.

There is yet another possibility. If Modi repels both minorities and other coalition partners, for that reason, all the hype attending his elevation may scare voters away, from the BJP ofcourse, but also from smaller parties because vote blocs would be looking for a big party with a secure future in the Delhi Durbar. In that case the eventual beneficiary of the Modi projection may well be the UPA under Manmohan Singh for the third time. Unless, ofcourse, the Congress exceeds the figure of 206 seats it won in 2009. In that most unlikely of events, the coronation turban will be tied around Rahul Gandhi’s head.

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Friday, June 7, 2013

Sow The Wind In Syria, Reap The Whirlwind In Turkey

Sow The Wind In Syria, Reap The Whirlwind In Turkey

                                                                                  Saeed Naqvi

It was October 2011. I knew this would be my last evening with the distinguished Turkish journalist, Mehmet Birand, as we looked over the Bosphorus from my hotel in Istanbul. He had been fighting cancer bravely for quite some time but the extent to which his large frame had shrunk was a clear sign that the disease was getting the better of him.

Birand had not allowed the disease to subdue his spirits. Quite to the contrary, he had seldom been as optimistic about Turkey’s place in world affairs. His country was not yet sowing the wind in Syria.

“All these years we have been a docile ally of the West” he said. “But today we can hold our head high as an independent nation, a dissident country in the Western Alliance”.

He enjoyed using the term “dissident”, like he had been freed from the straitjacket imposed on his nation by the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Pasha.

This sense of being “freed” was, in large measure, attributable to the manner in which Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, had expanded his electoral base from 36 percent in 2003, to 42 percent in 2007 and 50 percent in July 2011. Only with this kind of popular support could a government in Ankara tame the Army. This Erdogan had effectively managed.

The trick to ride the crest of popularity exceeding even Ataturk’s was to fall back on the formula of “independent action in foreign affairs”. This, in most Muslim countries, easily translates itself into anti Americanism.

When Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, sought passage for US troops into Iraq in 2003, Erdogan refused because 90 percent of the population were opposed to military action. His popularity grew in geometric progression.

With a considerable sense of theatre, he walked out on a bewildered Shimon Peres in Davos. He snapped ties with the Jewish state when a Turkish goodwill vessel carrying succor to Gaza was attacked by Israel. This was a total reversal of Turkey’s relations with Israel. Quite shrewdly, Erdogan had charted a path which went down well with the Arab street. He played this audacious hand because he knew that retribution would not be visited upon him for being a “rejectionist”. Turkey had its own protection: it was a member of NATO. Saddam Hussain and Qaddafi had been made examples of. Syria and Iran were in the line of fire. Their guilt? Having the temerity for being independent.

That is why Turkey was an awkward “dissident” in the Western Alliance as Birand put it. Further, as part of its policy of peace with all its neighbours, Ankara had befriended Teheran to a point where the latter was willing to hand over its nuclear material to Ankara for safe keeping. All of this was deeply disturbing.

Could Erdogan be manipulated? Ofcourse he could, if only one knew his background. Erdogan and his colleague, President Abdullah Gul, had learnt their paces in politics in the company of Necmettin Erbakan whose Islamist Refah party came to power riding a wave of resentment in Turkey against the televised brutalization of Bosnian Muslims, once subjects of the Ottoman Empire. Guardians of the secular state from the Ataturk era, the Turkish army dethroned Erbakan. But a determined Refah party reinvented itself as a toned down Conservative party without abandoning its Islamist base. Under the leadership of Erdogan and Abdullah Gul, the new Justice and Development party (AK party) strode out.

For two and a half terms Erdogan and Abdullah Gul kept up a plausible manner: they were non ideological, moderate Muslims. Yes, there was an occasional skirmish on trifles like headscarves for women but no serious threat of a Shariah flag being hoisted on a nation restored by Ataturk.

Why, then, did Erdogan manage to shuffle off the moderate image which had caused his reputation to rocket sky high?

First, the constitution does not allow a Prime Minister more than three terms. Thus, Erdogan saw the end of the road for himself in internal politics. He will probably try swapping jobs with Abdullah Gul in 2014-15. But will people let him? After all, 70 percent are opposed to conflict with Syria.

Second, the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood across the Arab world, with a common strand, but different shades, tempted him to project himself as a true disciple of Erbakan to be able to beam his Islamic charisma regionally.

Also, he had won three successive elections improving his vote each time. This helped qualify Turkey as something of a model democracy in an Arab world where peoples’ power could well be the order in the foreseeable future. These were alluring propositions for the AKP leadership but an obvious fact was obscured from their vision: Arabs will accept “Ottomans” only upto a point.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar had joined hands and were playing for very high stakes (a) to scuttle the peoples’ movement, an essential ingredient in the Arab Spring, which brought down regimes in Tunis and Cairo. They, and the rest of the GCC, were the most vulnerable should Kingdoms and Sheikhdoms ever be threatened. (b) They sought to divert popular discontent along sectarian, Shia-Sunni lines. (c) A major focus of exactly this strategy has been a foreign induced civil war in Syria, hopefully along Sunni-Alawi lines, targeting Bashar al Assad who is being cast in the Western media as some sort of an Alawi Ogre. With Assad’s departure (went the facile theory) Syria would be removed from the Iran, Hezbulla, Hamas axis. How? What, pray, will come in Assad’s place? The 148 groups fighting the regime who can’t even form a delegation for Geneva-II? Listen to Tom Friedman screaming: send a UN force; send a UN force!

Look at the nature of the plot and the naïve simplicity of the expected outcome. Endorsed by the US and Europe, financed by Saudis and Qataris, helped by Turkey, armed by everyone, groups not dissimilar from the ones the US has been fighting in the Af-Pak region, are expected to create conditions which will cause a regime change in Damascus.

Why will this heartless, remote controlled operation bring about regime change in Damascus? After all, it took a full-fledged US occupation of Iraq, destruction of the Baath structure, wiping out the secret service, killing of Saddam Hussain and all over ten years, before the US could leave Iraq in the sort of mess that country is in today. Syrian power structure is, in some senses, a mirror image of the Iraqi regime. According to Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN representative in Syria, there are 148 groups, big and small, fighting in the country. Yes, these Islamic brigands can destroy Syria, but not change the regime which is fighting with its back to the wall and has been quite as brutal as the imported Islamists creating mayhem in the countryside.

Now that the two sides have fought each other to a standstill, comes the moment of reckoning for the regional promoters of the mayhem. This is the moment that will change the region. Witness the escalating protests in Turkey.

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Saturday, June 1, 2013

Congress Dilemma: Focus On Maoist Insurgency Or On Coming Election

Congress Dilemma: Focus On Maoist Insurgency Or On Coming Election

                                                                                                                   Saeed Naqvi

“If terrorism is uncontrolled, if Left Wing extremism continues to flourish in important parts of our country which have tremendous natural resources of minerals and other precious things, that will certainly affect the climate for investment.”

This is Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, as eloquent as he can be, on June 9, 2009, replying to the debate in the Lok Sabha. His position has remained unchanged. Finance Minister P. Chidambaram is, ofcourse, yards ahead of him. Congress and the BJP have the same economic policies, he says. It follows therefore that the Congress join hands with Raman Singh, BJP Chief Minister, and hammer the Maoists. But on the eve of state assembly elections, Congress party sought to make tactical adjustments to the strategic vision and got hammered in Bastar.

This is the backdrop to the drama being played out between the Maoists and the state, across the tribal belt spanning eight states.

The Prime Minister’s statement cuts to the heart of the matter. The State must have access to mineral wealth for the economy to zoom to its destined height – 10 percent. Gunfight at Sukma, is the latest battle in the long drawn war.

“On May 25, a detachment of the People’s Liberation Guerilla Army, conducted a massive attack on the 20 plus vehicle convoy of the Congress party which resulted in wiping out of at least 27 Congress leaders, activists and policemen including Mahendra Karma, the bitter enemy of the oppressed people of Bastar ………………….”

This is the opening of a cogently drafted, 3,000 word press note issued by the Dandakaranya Special Zonal Committee of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) the day after the massacre. The draft makes it amply clear that the principal target of the People’s army was Mahendra Karma, founder of Salwa Judum, a mercenary force of Adivasis or tribals which has been raised since 2005 to be pitted against Adivasis mobilized under the Maoist umbrella.

How distant the state and the Maoists are becomes clear at the manner of Mahendra Karma’s death. In the convoy studded with many Congress stars, Karma had the highest form of security – Z category. And yet, the armed Maoists, mostly women in this instance, surrounded him. They riddled him with bullets, plunged knives into his cold body and danced around it. The Congress ran around trying to hide its shame. Earlier it was only whispered that it supports Salwa Judum, against whom there are Supreme Court strictures. It turns out that the Salwa Judum is in fact a large part of the State Congress.

The manner of his killing should leave no one in any doubt where Karma stood in Maoist’s esteem: a bleak and shoddy villain of history. Since he was the clear Numero Uno in the Congress Convoy, one would expect the party to deify him as something of a martyr at some appropriate date.

The Prime Minister’s vision is straightforward. His eyes are not on the Adivasis but on the mineral that lies buried in their lands and to which the multinational miners must have unhindered access. Maoists are spoiling the party by citing the indigenous people’s interests, a call which thwarts the global good. Can mere Adivasis be allowed to obstruct the path paved with good intentions?

In this land of startling contradictions, the Adi Shankara or the original Shankara stands on the highest social pedestal, but the Adivasi or the original inhabitant has no station, not even the lowest. The Adivasi, in millennia past, was pushed into the forest by those who displaced in the plains. Ancient texts describe the dwellers of the forests as Rakshas or “demons”.

If these “demons” can be subjugated, (goes one theory) they will be amenable to better management within the caste framework. Yes, they will be transformed into brooding Dalits at the outset but who may, at some later stage, erupt as durable political entities like, say, Mayawati. That may not be the happiest of outcomes, but draw what comfort you can from the fact that Mayawati is atleast part of the caste pyramid. The Adivasi on the other hand, is challenging the pyramid from the outside. He is asking for a fair deal from an equal.

Another complication. A Congress Chief Minister in Bhopal would have seen Chattisgarh differently from the UPA which sees the mine belt from its New Delhi’s vantage point. There is a wide variation in optics from New Delhi and Bhopal.

As Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh Digvijay Singh, for example, would have fallen back on his own political experience. He would have been more familiar with the topography of Chattisgarh, as indeed Ajit Jogi, is. His and Jogi’s basic instinct would be to fight the BJP tooth and nail – politically.

The Manmohan Singh – Chidambaram line on the other hand is to seek co operation of the BJP for the economic policies which will eventually end up clawing at tribal lands.

Since independence, New Delhi and Bhopal have only talked of development but in effect sought to subdue regions like Bastar with force.

In 1966, Dwarka Prasad Mishra, the powerful Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh was infuriated by the immense popularity of Pravir Chandra Bhanj Deo, King of Bastar who effectively obstructed the state machinery from encroaching on tribal lands. In the dramatic, showdown, paramilitary forces killed the King and his guards who waged a quaintly symbolic battle with bows and arrows.

The State’s list of grievance against the Maoists includes the fact that they don’t accept western, liberal democracy, as a means for transiting from their current dismal state to civilization. But, let us face it, Bastar’s King had accepted the democratic model and had won by a record margin the 1957 State Assembly election from Jagdalpur. The state killed him, nevertheless.

Remember, P. Chidambaram’s lamentation as Home Minister after the Dantewada humiliation? He told a TV station he was having to fight the “merciless” Maoists with his hands tied behind his back. The Ministry of Home Affairs had in those days floated the line that Chief Ministers of Bengal, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Orissa “were asking for air support to fight Maoists”. Congress Working Committee member Keshava Rao and a host of others had opposed the line as did Defence Minister A.K. Antony. In fact Antony echoed his Air Chief’s views.

“The military – Air Force, Army and Navy – are trained to inflict maximum lethality. They are not meant for limited damage. The weapons we have are meant for the enemy across the border.”

Is New Delhi in a huddle trying to revive Chidambaram’s and the PMO’s hard line which was check mated by a more cautious Congress party. The timing of the Congress Parivartan Yatra in Chattisgarh and the dramatic ambush have been most unfortunate. Should New Delhi now focus on the Maoists and control the insurgency? Or should it keep a steady gaze on votes until the November election? The two approaches lead to different destinations.

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