Friday, March 30, 2018

The Raging Guha-Mander Debate Deserves Wider Participation

The Raging Guha-Mander Debate Deserves Wider Participation
                                                                                    Saeed Naqvi

It does not surprise me that the continuing debate on the Op-Ed page of the Indian Express on the Muslim predicament skirts fundamental issues. The debate has been triggered by Ramchandra Guha disagreeing with Harsh Mander on the Muslim question.

Mander’s column, headlined “Sonia, Sadly”, expresses his hurt at Sonia Gandhi’s public expression of fear that the Congress was being perceived as a “Muslim Party”.

In the very first paragraph of his column, Guha plucks out a quote from Mander. “A Dalit leader tells Muslims who come to political meetings: By all means come in large number to our rallies. But don’t come with your skull caps and burkas.”

“Mander is dismayed at this gratuitous attempt to get Muslims to voluntarily withdraw from politics.”  But Guha disagrees with Mander’s interpretation of what the Dalit leader said. Guha is emphatic: “while the words may be harsh and direct, the spirit of the advice was forward looking”, i.e. don’t come in skull caps and burkas.

This, I suspect, is the crux of the matter. Guha is endorsing the new line enunciated by the Congress Party: Keep Muslims at arm’s length just in case the BJP spin doctors pick up this visual to polarize. Rahul Gandhi’s frenetic temple hopping, janeu et al, is in pursuit of this soft saffron.

Apoorvanand, Harbans Mukhia, Mukul Keshavan, Mani Shankar Aiyar, Suhas Palshikar, Irena Akbar, Khalid Ansari, Jawed Naqvi, why, even Mander himself, have all written sensitively, even knowledgably on the subject. But Guha is a class apart: Muslims must give up skull caps and, to balance matters, Hindus their trishuls. His desire to equalize permeates the article. Praveen Togadia and Yogi Adityanath are bad but Guha will have his little orgasm only if Asaduddin Owaisi and Ali Shah Geelani are mentioned in the same breath. Togadia wants Muslims to leave the country. “Occupy their homes” he once famously said in Gujarat. Without batting an eyelid, Yogi heard his cohorts ask for buried Muslim women to be dug out from their graves and raped. Show me a comparable quote from Owaisi or Geelani.

“Yeh ajeeb majra hai ki baroz e Eide qurbaan
Wohi zubah bhi kare hai wohi le sawab ulta”
(Look at the illogical system of the ceremony of sacrifice.
He who slaughters claims the reward for paradise.)

The tragedy is that Guha belongs to the category of people who, because of their celebrity status, imagine that eminence in one field qualifies them to claim proficiency in all the others. His inadequacy on the theme he has rushed into unprepared, derives from a common malaise: he is a creature of uninstitutionalized apartheid which means separate development.

It would be interesting to know if Guha has ever visited Muslim homes or the other way around when he was a child. Did he know Muslims in school or college whose friendship he still values? Even if he is able to blurt out a name or two the undeniable truth will be that he has grown up only with his ilk. He has no experience of Muslims. He is not alone in this category.

A sharp contrast attends my circumstance. I, along with my three brothers grew up only among Hindus. Apartheid therefore didn’t touch us. Since our informal education was continuous since birth, we knew fairly early that Al-Biruni wrote Tarikh al Hind after his extended stay beginning 1017. Moinuddin Chishti, Shahbaz Qalandar and a host of Sufis and Saint poets like Kabir from the 12th to 14th centuries were spreading Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, paving the way for Abdul Rahim Khan-I-Khana who ended up writing the only Sanskrit verses in praise of Lord Rama. In his brilliant Persian poetry in the 17th century, Chandrabhan Brahman felt secure enough to taunt and tease the Muslim clergy.

Yagana Changezi, a 20th century poet, questions a basic tenet: why must namaz be said in a foreign language? If all of this sounds like nostalgia, let me invite you to Lucknow for an evening of spiritual poetry on Ahl al-Bayt or the Prophet’s family. The poet, Sanjaya Mishra, was a favourite with my mother who died three years ago. She had special vegetarian meals prepared for him.

I have shed light on the tiniest strand in the vast expanse of Muslim liberal traditions. Since the 16th century these have been bound up inextricably with the waxing and waning of Urdu in which Hindus and Muslims equally participated. The first great writer of Urdu prose was Pandit Ratan Nath Sarshar.

How many liberals know that  there is not a single couplet in Urdu which praises the Mullah or endorses orthodoxy of any kind.

Did you know that most of the poetry on Krishna, Rama in the last century has been written by Muslims? I will only confuse the issue if I bring in Kazi Nazrul Islam, Salbeg, Bekal Utsahi or Nida Fazli.

It puzzles me why liberal intellectuals sometimes fall prey to a tendency that the politician has cultivated as a calculated habit: consider the Muslim only as a religious category. Why must Muslim achievements in poetry, music, architecture, systems of governance not be celebrated? Such an exercise would surely cast them in a liberal mould. Guha might then heave a sigh of relief.

A false quest for a liberal Muslim leader almost flows from the above approach. A liberal Muslim leader, I never tire of repeating, is a contradiction in terms. That is an illiberal quest. Are we never going to find a Hindu whom Muslims can trust and the other way around? That must be the only possible way ahead.

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Friday, March 23, 2018

Can Saud And Israel Drag Trump Into War With Iran?

Can Saud And Israel Drag Trump Into War With Iran?
                                                                           Saeed Naqvi

The New York Times Op-Ed page headline said it all:
“I Helped Sell the False Choice of War Once. It’s Happening Again.” The column written by Col. Lawrence Wilkerson appeared on February 5, 2018. The date is significant because exactly 15 years ago, on February 5, 2003, Colin Powell, former Secretary of State, spoke at the UN, making out a case for a pre emptive war with Iraq. Remember those satellite pictures, sinister vehicular movement, “confirming” the presence of Weapons of Mass Destruction in that blighted country.

Powell’s Chief of Staff who actually helped draft the speech was Lawrence Wilkerson, now a much chastened man. He learnt the hard way that both he and his boss Powell had been set on a Fool’s Errand by the Intelligence community. There were no WMD’s in Iraq.

The “war of choice” with Iraq “resulted in catastrophic losses for the region and the US-led coalition, that destabilized the entire Middle East”, he says.

Wilkerson, the perennial insider, then draws comparisons with the current mood in Washington.

“Just over a month ago, the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, said that the administration had ‘undeniable’ evidence that Iran was not complying with the Security Council Resolutions regarding its ballistic missile programme and Yemen. Just like Mr. Powell, Ms. Haley showed satellite images and other physical evidence available only to the US Intelligence community to prove her case.”

“It’s astonishing how similar that moment was to Powell’s 2003 presentation.”

For obvious reasons, in his New York Times article, Wilkerson is circumspect. He does not name Israel as driving President Trump’s policies. But speaking at National Press Club, he is much more unfettered and direct in answering the basic question: who is pushing America into a conflict with Iran?

“Avigdor Lieberman (Israeli Defence Minister) and Benjamin Netanyahu and their acolytes in this country (US), among whom I put Nikki Haley – they have determined that it would be best if American troops also participated in the overthrow of the Tehran regime.”

Wilkerson is full of admiration for the Israeli Defence Forces which could handle “anything Iran threw at it militarily”. Also, “Israel’s 200 nuclear weapons could decimate Iran”. Wilkerson then asks: “so, why this attempt to suck America into this conflict?” He puts it down to “crass opportunism” – “better to squander your ally’s blood and treasure than your own.”

It is possible to argue that if Wilkerson went along with the exaggerations in 2003, what is the guarantee that he is not once again exaggerating present dangers?

There is nothing about the present White House that leaves one sanguine on any count. It would be rank bad form to compare the President of the United States with Caligula but folks are making that comparison to good effect. Caligula elevated his horse to a cabinet rank. Donald Trump has committed no such misdemeanor thus far. But no one can bet on the future.

While his buddies across the Atlantic are in convulsions over Putin dispensing nerve agents on the streets of Britain, Trump has made a quiet telephonic contact with the same Russian gent. No one can make out whether he is cooing or barking on the telephone line.

Washington’s current policy towards Iran, which carries Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner’s imprimatur, is quite transparent: leave it outside the regional order the US seeks to impose in West Asia (Middle East). And then defang Iran in every possible way, including military action.

This is the exact opposite of the order Barack Obama-John Kerry had sketched for the region.

The 2015 nuclear deal with Iran was signed within a certain conceptual framework. Pivot to Asia had acquired greater saliency in Obama’s scheme. China’s extraordinary rise required the US to pay greater attention to the Pacific region. This entailed that day to day supervision of West Asian affairs by the US would no longer be possible.

The US was not running away from its West Asian responsibilities. The legitimacy conferred on Iran after the nuclear deal made it a key player in the new West Asian balance of power which Washington was proposing. Other players in this arrangement would be Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar. But Saudi Arabia and Israel, sleeping in the same bed in Syria, were totally averse to having Iran as a player in the new West Asian balance. It was galling for the Israeli-Saudi duet when Russia with the help of Iran-controlled militias and Turkey’s switch in favour of Assad, turned the tide in Syria.

This is when Trump appeared in the White House, not quite Caligula incarnate but more or less there. As candidate he had told Jake Tapper of the CNN that billions of dollars had been given to groups in Syria who may well have been the Islamic State. “I think they were the Islamic state”, he said with certainty. The interview is available on youtube.

Instead of wasting money on questionable groups, Trump has fallen back on a strategy closest to his heart: making money. Towards this end he has American boots on the ground in Syria for which a prohibitive bill will be submitted to an embattled, Saudi King-to-be, running helter skelter between Yemen, Syria, Qatif and the occupants of Riyadh’s Ritz Carlton hotel.

Mohammad bin Salman is not a comforting sight to a Benjamin Netanyahu, on sixes and sevens with the noose of corruption allegations tightening around his neck. Meanwhile, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, Iran axis continue to menace.

Might Trump, in search of some success, be pushed into a pre emptive war on Iran? Can he at a time that Putin is glaring at him, eye-ball to eye-ball? True, key appointments around him can only add to Trump’s recklessness and hawk of hawks Nikki Haley is not budging from her position.

If he goes down that route he should glance at the elementary data Wilkerson has furnished: Polls show at least 4 billion people think we’re (the US) the number one threat to their security in the world; think about that for a minute – “We’ve already done Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and Syria. We’d just be seen as continuing trend if we embark on Iran”. Is this to be America’s lasting heritage?

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Friday, March 9, 2018

Tripura Ends CPM Tedium By Trading Decency For False Eldorado

Tripura Ends CPM Tedium By Trading Decency For False Eldorado
                                                                                                   Saeed Naqvi

The extraordinary feat the BJP has pulled off leaves one breathless. Which other Chief Minister in the country will have a decorated Director General of Police, B.L. Vohra, write in his book, Tripura’s Bravehearts, “Manik Sarkar was definitely unlike any Chief Ministers whom I had seen, met, worked with and heard about…. He was honest personally and that had percolated down to all echelons of the government again one cannot find many examples of his ilk unfortunately in the country.” This level of decency has been traded by the Tripura electorate for mobs who pull down statues.

The universal assessment of Manik Sarkar even among opposition leaders in Tripura would flatter any politician. It was not just that he was himself a gentleman but he appeared to have instilled his qualities in his cabinet colleagues and the administration across the board. By all accounts his predecessor and Guru, Nripen Chakraborty, was even more admirable. The staff in the Chief Minister’s house had never ever dreamt that they would serve a boss whose groceries were purchased on a ration card and who never saved enough money to open a bank account. This may be syrupy stuff in an era when materialism is the mantra, but do, for a moment, reflect on the Chakraborty-Sarkar duo against the amoral wasteland that stretches as far as the eye can see.

Also, it is elementary that 25 years of CPM rule could not have lasted only because of the leadership’s decency. Despite the economic crunch, the government in Agartala implemented every central scheme with greater efficiency than any other state. 96% literacy? Show me another state. The gender ratio is something of a record. That is how Tripura’s middle class was created. True, having created a new middle class, the government found itself flat footed. It could not cope with the next stage of aspirations. It produced distributive justice but found itself bereft of ideas to generate wealth to accommodate the educated unemployed and to promote two wheel drivers to the four wheel level.

Upon arrival in Agartala I was able to find accommodation only in a government guest house. When I asked the CM if the absence of reasonable hotels was state policy, he was frank: “we are not in a position to cope with social imbalances that come with five star hotels, bars and restaurants.”

This may sound odd, but the reasons for the rout of the CPM in Tripura are, to some extent, similar to the ones responsible for the decline of West Indian cricket.

Never again will the likes of Weekes, Sobers, Viv Richards, Michael Holding and Brian Lara adorn world cricket. In the 70s and the 80s, the West Indies cricket team was like Don Bradman’s invincibles. The culture of cricket was their inheritance from the British colonial period.

Aggressive globalization of the 90s, placed the West Indies in the sphere of American media. US centered television beamed at the islanders not cricketers but basketball and baseball stars like Michael Jordan and Jose Ramirez, with proselytizing persistence. Within a generation, all that remained of the cricketing legends were their fading photographs in the scrap books of schoolboys of the 80s in former British colonies.

A CPM government in Tripura was, likewise, as remote from any Left ruled enclave as the West Indies are from cricket’s birth place. After the end of Left rule in West Bengal, it had no structure to lean on. In this friendless era it was exposed to hostile TV bombardment. Riding the crest of economic liberalization, market fundamentalism galloped at breakneck speed to accommodate advertising for rampaging consumerism marketed by dream merchants, architects of plush malls and multiplexes.

CPM Chief Minister, Manik Sarkar’s controlled austerities withstood this barrage of televised razzmatazz for 25 years. By this time another generation had arisen, torn between a lifestyle of simplicity and the Eldorado on the horizon that metropolitan centres of control teased and tempted them with.

Agartala is in trauma. Before they find their feet, the stunned CPM cadres are having to adjust to another reality: Party sympathizers are suddenly not making eye contact with them. Some, with an eye on the main chance, have been seen on the margins of mobs attacking CPM offices, even pulling down of the Lenin statue.

To a considerable extent, the outcome in Tripura and elsewhere in the North East is the Congress’s gift to the BJP. Himanta Biswa Sarma, a genius in electoral management, walked out of the Congress because he could not bear Rahul Gandhi’s insulting silences. Tarun Gagoi, the former Assam Chief Minister, was eager to create his own dynasty, make his son Gaurav the Chief Minister. This would cut out Sarma whose political brilliance underpinned the latter half of the Gogoi years.

This kind of a dynamo, backed by money power that would make Nirav Modi salivate and an adversarial centre controlling the purse strings this is how the Left was uprooted in Tripura. Just imagine, when state after state is implementing the 7th pay commission, Tripura found itself stranded at the 4th pay commission. CPM dogma also stood in the way: “7th pay commission made some demands which were anti people.”

The change of cultures was imminent from the day the BJP planted Tathagata Roy as Governor of Tripura. The genteel tone of Chakraborty-Sarkar gave way to a inelegant vocabulary. “They should be buried head first in pig’s excreta”, said the Governor by way of a recommendation for dealing with terrorists.

Pulling down of statues is a milder form of retribution compared to the coarse standards set by the Governor.

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