Friday, August 31, 2018

Syrian Militants Secretly Flown To Afghanistan, China Raises A Battalion

Syrian Militants Secretly Flown To Afghanistan, China Raises A Battalion
                                                                                       Saeed Naqvi

Among the dozen or so guests US Ambassador Frank Wisner was escorting to Bhutan for a holiday was Richard Holbrooke, former US ambassador to the UN. Wisner had invited a few Indian friends to the long hall of Roosevelt House to meet the group. The year was 1996. The ebb and flow of conversation was interrupted when Holbrooke raised his hand like a Japanese tour leader. “Silent” he whispered audibly. He walked to the far end of the hall to talk on the telephone.

He returned with his mouth full of news. “US-Taleban romance is over” he announced with authority. Until the previous day the US was operating on the assumption that the Taleban was the most organized and muscular group in Afghanistan, who could be relied upon to stabilize the country. TAPI or the Turkmenistan, Afghan, Pak, India gas pipeline would then begin to look feasible to the US oil company, UNOCAL – the principal reason for the Afghan conflict.

What the US had not bargained for was the brutality with which the Taleban applied Shariah law on Afghan women. A series of prime time features on Taleban cruelty against women, telecast by the CNN’s Christiane Amanpour created a sensation in Washington. Without any waste of time, the US decided to distance itself from the Taleban. US officials supportive of the UNOCAL project, did not conceal their disappointment. “US gender politics has scuttled a strategic initiative”.

Fast forward to the great Tajik leader, Ahmad Shah Massoud (the lion of Panjshir valley) addressing the European Union in Brussels, in early spring 2001. He alerted the EU leaders, of the information his anti Taleban Northern Alliance had collected: Al Qaeda, helped by the Taleban, were planning a major attack on the US mainland. For this audacity Massoud was to pay with his life. On September 9, two days before the attack on the Twin towers in New York, Massoud was assassinated at his hideout on the Tajik border. It is interesting that the two Tunisian suicide bombers who had approached Massoud disguised as journalists travelled on passports forged in Brussels, the city where Massoud exposed the plot which turned out to be 9/11. At whose behest was Massoud killed?

Had the financial crisis of 2008 not weakened the West, there may have been different scripts for many regions, including Afghanistan. But given the ground realities, President Barack Obama settled on July 2011 as the date on which US troops would begin to withdraw. In August 2011 precisely a month after the Afghan withdrawal date was announced, the Syrian theatre was opened up. Coordination or chaos?

In a paper for the Observer Research Foundation in September 2010 I had argued that Obama’s exit plans were a pipedream. Do Americans have an endgame planned? Can a superpower, in a theatre of strategic importance, have a linear exit plan when multiple strategic options present themselves? US has been extremely watchful of a nuclear Pak. Is it now willing to walk away leaving the world’s only “Islamic” bomb unmonitored? Let’s not forget, Afghanistan has been the US watch tower on this count.

Moreover, a US being bled by an endless war suits all powers in the region. Demanding American departure but doing everything to keep it tied down in Afghanistan is an elementary game everyone is playing. Would interests in Pakistan wish the logistical supply line from the Karachi harbour to Afghanistan past Baluchistan to dry up? It is a regular source of incalculable earnings.

Would not a possible US departure cause Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Russia and China to contemplate the Afghan real estate as a huge vacuum which each power must rush to fill up before the next one does? Here is a recipe for the mother of all civil wars.

Are the Americans likely to walk away simply because they are exasperated? After having spent a trillion dollars, losing thousands of lives, losing face – so soon after their reversal in Syria – are they really contemplating withdrawal? Will the bosses of UNOCAL suck their thumbs now? Will the priceless poppy fields of Helmand, the oil in the North, the unexplored mineral wealth now become a Russian asset?

Ofcourse not. Absence of consistency has been one of the constants in US policy on Afghanistan. To cloak this inconsistency, amplified in the time of Trump, we have strange reports coming out of the White House. Before Steve Bannon, the President’s Chief strategist was shown the door in August 2017 he had drawn the President’s attention to an outlandish proposition put forward by Eric Prince, the founder of Blackwater, the world’s biggest provider of private armies.

At a strategy session in Camp David, Trump’s Best and Brightest considered the plan: Afghanistan should be administered exactly as the British controlled India – under a viceroy. Is former US ambassador to Kabul, Zalmay Khalilzad, to be that Viceroy? He is an ethnic Afghan and is being tipped as special Envoy which is what the Viceroys were.

Ofcourse, the senior military brass around Trump shot down the first Prince proposal. But with Trump beginning to look vulnerable, all manner of risky adventures are being contemplated. The other day National Security Adviser john Bolton leaked the alarming news that Syria was about to launch a chemical attack in Idlib. How did he know? From Hezbullah leader Hasan Nasrallah’s speech last Sunday? Nasrallah said “data indicates that preparations are underway to stage a new chemical incident in Idlib”. This is the western “ruse to launch an aggression on Syria.”

Meanwhile, there are statements by Iranian Supreme leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, Russian Foreign Ministry and reports by independent journalists like Robert Fisk that militant groups like Jabhat al Nusra, trounced in Syria, are being secretly airlifted to Northern Afghanistan. There are unconfirmed reports of a Chinese retaliation: a battalion being raised in the Wakhan Corridor to block terrorism being transported from Afghanistan. An air strike on the Afghan-Tajik border killed eight militants. According to the Afghan spokesman Khalil Asir, the origin of the aircraft remains unclear. Strange things are happening.

US Presidents have been known to dramatically divert attention when faced with internal crises. Is some catastrophe being manufactured to protect Trump?

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Friday, August 24, 2018

Since Burqa Has No Kuranic Injunction, Why Annoy Host Societies?

Since Burqa Has No Kuranic Injunction, Why Annoy Host Societies?
                                                                                     Saeed Naqvi

In normal times Britain’s former Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson’s observation that burqa clad women resemble walking “letter boxes” and “bank robbers” would evoke laughter. But these are not normal times.

Just when liberals were beginning to pelt stones at him, a startling turn to the debate was given by Taj Hargay, Imam of Oxford. “The burqa is a Wahabi fifth column……we will wake up in the Islamic Republic of Britain.”

Johnson’s observation is mischievous, and has a political purpose, the Imam’s an exaggeration. The observations are troubling for an Indian Muslim. I would avoid being judgemental on a community which has been under immense pressure because of rampaging Islamophobia since the 90s. And yet, I cannot help asking: is the burqa a response to nasty Islamophobia or a means of aggravating it?

Aggravation of the problem is surely not our purpose. Then whose purpose is served by Muslim women floating around Oxford Circus in gear which distances them, in geometrical progression, from the host population? The clerics, eager to consolidate their congregations? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if these congregations had in their midst scholars, doctors, writers, scientists, entrepreneurs, rather than pliant women fitting Boris Johnson’s description.

I am troubled for another reason. After extensive travel around the world, I am inclined to cast my vote in recent years for Britain as a society where Human Rights, Rule of Law, Race relations are most secure. That is why I am uneasy at the two observations.

Let me turn to India to bring out my point, by comparison, in bolder relief.

The depths to which Hindu-Muslim relations have sunk in India is attributed by pundits to the brazenly communal politics of the ruling BJP under Prime Minister, Narendra Modi since 2014. If an ancient civilization, embracing 1.25 billion people can be so totally transformed in merely four years, Modi and his cohorts deserve to be celebrated as miracle men. No, the present government has clearly accelerated the communal agenda but the ground for it was diligently laid over 71 years of independence. The ruling party for most of these decades was the Congress.

Social disharmony was built into the manner in which Partition was affected. The Congress was firmly opposed to the two-nation theory enunciated by Mohammad Ali Jinnah, founder of Pakistan – that Hindus and Muslims constituted two separate nations. But the Congress accepted Lord Mountbatten’s June 3, 1947 plan for Partition in double quick time.

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, former President of the Congress and others warned Pandit Nehru that Partition would mean “unadulterated Hindu Raj”.

By that logic once the Congress Working Committee had accepted a Muslim state, with a small Hindu minority, named Pakistan, it logically followed that the rest of India would be Hindustan or a Hindu state with a substantial Muslim minority. In other words, on August 15, 1947 India glided seamlessly from British Raj to Hindu Raj but Nehru chose not to use the term “Hindu” for a variety of reasons. A “Hindu” state was an affront to his self image. Self image was important to Nehru. In his evolution, there was a phase when he was angry with his father for having hired an English governess for his sister, Vijaylakshmi Pandit. “Bhai (brother) was cross” Mrs. Pandit told me, “because British aristocracy those days preferred French governesses.”

The basic reason why Nehru avoided the term “Hindu” to describe the new found state was Kashmir. How could a Hindu state claim the Muslim majority province of Kashmir on the principle of contiguity?

Look at it from the hard core Hindu perspective. After a thousand years of Muslim rule, 200 of British, the Muslim state of Pakistan does come into being. But, alas, no Hindu state. The sophistry of why it is so, is lost on the millions. This is where the Hindu communalist pitches his tent.

It turns out that, over the decades, a compulsive hatred for Pakistan has emerged an acid test for nationalism. Into this bubbling cauldron has been pushed a boulder – the post 9/11 war against terror. The Islamophobia this has generated globally has been grist to the Hindu communalist’s mill too.

I have argued in my book “Being The Other: The Muslim in India” that calling a spade a spade at the very outset would have minimized the social disharmony that has plagued us for 71 years. From day one we should have declared ourselves a Hindu state. This would have obviated the need for an unsettling, double distilled Hindu Rashtra or Hindu Nation. The Hindu in this “raj” would have been at the steering wheel but the minorities would have struck a stronger bargain for education, seats in Parliament, jobs in the cabinet, Civil Service, Police, Armed Forces and so on.

Detractors raise a howl of protest. How can a theoretic state be secular?

In the recent elections in Pakistan three Hindus, Mahesh Malani, Hari Ram Kishwari Lal and Giyan Chand Essrani, won from general seats in Sind – one for the National Assembly and two for the Provincial Assembly.

The fact that Britain is a Protestant monarchy did not come in the way of Sadiq Khan serving as London’s high profile Mayor. Last year Donald Trump banned travel to the US from several Muslim countries. He was therefore not accorded a “state” visit to Britain because in that event protocol would have involved the Mayor of London. Saving Sadiq Khan this embarrassment was important enough for the organizers to deny Trump a state banquet with the Queen.

The Home Secretary Sajid Javid may not be a practicing Muslim but he is there high in public profile to make a bid for the top job. Two years ago when I watched a test match there were four Muslims in the English cricket team. I have met doctors, teachers, civil servants, entrepreneurs from the sub continent, both Hindus and Muslims, thriving. The Anglican Church never came in their way. In India’s circumstances in 1947, a Hindu India may have been better, than the one cloaked in a hollow and bogus secularism where the police watch on as one Muslim (or Dalit) after another is lynched, some to the accompaniment of expert photography.

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Friday, August 17, 2018

The Best Prime Minister The Congress Never Had

The Best Prime Minister The Congress Never Had
                                                                                Saeed Naqvi
Aaney wali naslein hum par
Fakhr kareingi, hum asaro,
Jub unko yeh khayal aayega
Humney Atal ko dekha thaa
(By way of poetic license I have replaced Firaq with Atal)
“Coming generations will remember us with awe,
When it dawns on them that we had actually seen Atal Bihari Vajpayee”

I can claim a little more. I knew him. I say so with utmost modesty because there were many journalists who knew him better. But he had a knack of making a chosen few feel special with a smile here and gesture there. Confronting him was always a renewal because your opening question was generally greeted with stony silence, bordering on lack of recognition. Then would come a well thought through response to a question asked five minutes ago. There was no unprocessed response.

Exuberance was not his style but when moved by an idea, he could be demonstrative as at the Hyderabad House banquet when he put his arms around me. “Mainey aap ka lekh parha; kaee baar parha. Maen aapse sahmat hoon.” (read your column several times; I agree with you.)

It was not just a Prime Ministerial approval of a column but the warmth with which the appreciation was communicated. It would have been most unlike him to react to a dry piece on foreign affairs or national politics. What moved the sentimental lyricist in him wa a taboo I had broken by placing Hindu-Muslim issues in a context readers were unfamiliar with.

Communal riots had broken in Moradabad in 1982. I was Regional Editor for The Indian Express with headquarters in Chennai. Nihal singh, the Editor-in-chief, asked me to “churn out” an edit on Moradabad.

Instead of writing something in a jiffy, I fell back on nostalgia, my life in my village, the cultural commerce which has held society together for hundreds of years. The new political class has taken its eyes off it largely because harmony does not easily translate into votes. In my piece, I listed Mohsin Kakorwi invoking images associated with Krishna to celebrate Prophet Mohammad’s birthday; Maulana Hasrat Mohani’s adoration for Krishna and Radha, in verse and gesture.

“Ahelia, who had turned to stone because of a curse, was restored to her former self by Your touch. From the animal kingdom You elevated an army worthy of Hanuman’s leadership.
Your reformed a wicked Chandal. “O’Lord Rama, when will You cast your benign eye on me?”

This is from the Sanskrit poetry of Abdul Rahim Khan-I-Khana, one of Akbar’s courtiers.

The list is unending, particularly if you dilate on Hindu poets writing in a similar vein since the 17th century atleast. The latest Noha or a dirge for Moharram is:
“Kaash Hindustan mein hota janam Abbas ka,
Barh ke hum Hindu utha letey alam Abbas ka”
(We wish Imam Hussain’s brave brother, Abbas, was born in Hindustan.
Because when the enemy cut off his arms in battle, we Hindus would have raised his banner.)

No, I have not veered far away from Atalji. In fact I am sharing with you a slice of social history in which he was involved.

The late H.R. Malkani, editor of the RSS mouthpiece, Organiser, was the first to write to me. “I salute you” he wrote, “Your piece brought tears into my eyes.” An interview was arranged with RSS ideologue Bhaurao Deoras. Malkani invited me to 10, Ashok Road, for tea with Atalji who was shaking his head in admiration. (Link to the piece

This gushing of admiration from the parivar was unnerving. Had I by writing one column unintentionally turned my back on my progressive friends? Had I opened myself to the charge of walking the illiberal path? But everybody, and his neighbour, from the Congress to the far left swear by our composite culture, Ganga-Jumni tehzeeb and so on. Do they like the concept only in its haziest outlines? Does the idea get tainted if the Parivar finds it wholesome?

Authors like M. Mujeeb who in his masterly survey, Indian Muslims, has left no aspect of syncretism untouched. But the large body of liberal, Muslim Intelligentsia, scholars, seminarists, writers, columnists had before 1982 chosen to ignore evidence of syncretism strewn all over, the Sufi belief system that Rama and Krishna were God’s prophets sent to India. This the liberal Muslims thought would expose them to the charge of “shirk” or apostasy among the wider, community. The Mullah, unencumbered by such considerations pushed his agenda diligently and with a sense of purpose. The results are there for all to see.

Vajpayee, familiar with Lucknow, grasped the significance of Indian syncretism. But the practical politician in him also saw the liberal Muslim’s hesitations. Not only does he have limited votes he is also intellectually uncertain. Vajpayee had a singular advantage over his peers: he was the most respected member of the Sangh and yet he had evolved along the path of modernism. He slid out of his RSS coil with deliberation; he did not shuffle out of it. If my mother’s test for dependability were applied to Vajpayee, he would emerge with flying colours. “Always mistrust a man without an obvious weakness” she used to say. As he came out of the RSS shadows, the romantic in Vajpayee was given measured play. He loved the good things of life. Heaven knows where he had developed a taste for fried prawns?

Towards the end of 2003 he made up his mind to resolve “regional quarrels”. Ofcourse, losing the 2004 election was a huge setback. But what rankled with him was the Pakistan, Kashmir imbroglio: a solution along the line of control was almost within grasp according his Principal Secretary, Brajesh Mishra.

Did Vajpayee have a model? K.K. Katyal of The Hindu, myself and one or two others trailed him on the first day he entered his South Block office when he was appointed the Minister for External Affairs in the Janata government led by Morarji Desai in 1977.

We asked him how he felt occupying his first office in South Block? He summoned up the poet in him. Misty eyed, he said he had difficulty controlling his emotions. “I cannot believe that I am about to occupy the chair which was once occupied by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru.”

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In the Aftermath of Moradabad Riots

In the Aftermath of Moradabad Riots

Whenever events like Moradabad take place some of my friends turn to me with sympathy which generally leaves me cold because I guess I am a minority in my own community for reasons more than one.

My credentials as a good Muslim are quite as suspect as Ghalib’s were. “I am a half Muslim”, he said when, in the course of a litigation, a magistrate asked him to declare his religion. “I drink but I do not eat pork”.

However, my children generally describe themselves as Muslims while filling up school admission forms, although I wonder why such questions should ever be asked. Before you hastily trace my attitude to my anglicized education let me dispel the notion straightaway. Yes, I did have my schooling in an Anglo-Indian institution of sorts in Lucknow, but the home in which I grew up was a  deeply religious one even though the likes of the Imam currently in the news would not have been allowed within miles of it.

My grandfather, like Dryden, always maintained that “Priests of all religious are the same”, but some he respected, even befriended for their scholarship and conversation. I remember sitting through many a theological discourse, with Maulana Nsair-ul-Millat holding court; among the participants was one Mr Gurtu, a Kashmiri Pandit.

A moulvi of little distinction was hired ostensibly to brush up my arithmetic but actually to put me through my first paces in ‘namaz’(prayer). His efforts at proselytization were supplemented by my mother’s; she augmented our meager library with biographies of the prophets and the great Imams.

I believe the moulvi left in some disgust because he complained that there was too much music in our house, which, he found distasteful even on Id day. Id was never Id without Babu Mahavir Prasad Srivastava. We changed into our new clothes and waited at the doorstep for Babuji. He would walk across the street from where we lived, clad in a black ‘achkan’ and Gandhi cap, meet my father, settle down to large helpings of ‘seewai’ (sweet noodles prepared traditionally on Id day) and then hand those days when two rupees a week was good pocket money. On Raksha Bandhan my mother would send out ‘rakhis’ to my father’s many friends.

There was a quaint little mosque in the compound of the house in our village, Mustafabad, near Rae Bareli. Since we visited the village only during school holidays, marriages, deaths and births, it was not difficult to maintain  a certain discipline and be seen in the mosque, at reasonable frequency, often only to please grandfather. He expressed his pleasure either by making additions to our paltry pocket money or taking us out on shikar, inspite of his old age. My grandfather was equally pleased when we agreed to accompany him to his friends on Holi or Diwali, the two festivals we continue to participate in to this day.

A very strong ingredient in our total make up was a tidy combination of Urbane Urdu culture and the more folksy Avadhi and Brijbhasha. I learnt very early in life and I am being persuaded ti unlearn since –that Urdu represented the flowering of a composite culture. My grandfather would fly into a rage at the cancard that it was a language of the Muslims. Why, the greatest Urdu prose writer was Pandit Ratan Nath Sarshar and one of the greatest Urdu poets was Raghupati Sahai Firaq.

We were groomed into believing that Islam was the most, dynamic of religions but we found it equally easy to accept that it was Islam’s interaction with a grater civilization that resulted in Dara Shikoh, Rahim, Kabir, Amir Khusro, Raskhan, Nazir Akbarabadi, Ghalib, and Anis. Nowhere in the Muslim world is there a monument, like the Taj or Fatehpur Sikri.

Folks these days are ignorant of the 18th century poet Nazir Akbarabadi’s poem “kya kya likhoon main Krishna Kanhaiya Ka baal pan” (How should I write about the beautiful childhood of Lord Krishna) or Mohsin Kakorvi’s “Samte Kashi se chala janibe Mathura badal” “jab talak Brij mein Kanhaiya hai yeh Khulne ka nahin” (The clouds are moving ecstatically from Kashi to Mathura and the sky will remain covered with the beautiful clouds as long as there is Krishna in Brij). Is there anyone around willing to believe that these lines were written by a Muslim poet to celebrate the birthday of Prophet Mohammad?

In the region I was raised in, ‘Sohar’ was a song sung during a  woman’s confinement. My mother’s favourite sohar was “Allah Mian, hamre bhaiya ka diyo Nandlal” (Oh my Allah, give my brother a son like Lord Krishna).

You might wonder, as a good friend of mine does, what all this nostalgia has to do with “contemporary realities”.

Well, I guess I am no pandit but I do know a bit about “contemporary realities”. I know how partition ruptured the fabric, bits of which I still keep with me. I also know about the status reversal experienced by the Muslims in independent India, particularly with the decline of the feudal order. It was the self-confident Muslim feudal elite which found it easy to extend patronage to the beautiful aspects of Hindu culture: after all, Krishna Leela was preserved in its entirely in the Kathak style evolved in the Muslim courts.

With the decay of the feudal order, the lower middle class, always bigoted in every society, gained some upward mobility. It is upon this class that parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami feed and which forms the central nervous system of the sort of fundamentalism current in Pakistan or Iran. I also know of a certain pan-Islamic sentiment among the Muslims and I guess that Mr Deoras does not like it. I also remember having read reports  on the socio-economic basis of the riots, a communal Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) and so on. All this and more I have been aware of for quite some time.

It must, therefore, be a considerable intellectual failure on my part that in spite of all this I am unable to disengage myself  from the folks who moulded me in my formative years. The credo they lived by is no longer part of the contemporary ethos.

Call it private grief, call it indifference, or both, but I find it, increasingly difficult to have a ready made response to Moradabad, Jamshedpur or Aligarh. And when friends turn to me with sympathy when such madness erupts, I feel a sort of numbness and have a strange feeling that they are addressing the wrong person.

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