Sunday, November 20, 2011

Writing on Egypt Again: This is the Beginning

I have stayed away from posting on Egypt in the past few months. There are many reasons for this, but the foremost amongst them is my absolute belief that only the Egyptians have the right to shape their narrative and their futures, and any writing at this point by foreigners distracts from their amazing struggle to sieze control of their own story.

This is really the reason I have not commented on the horrific Maspero violence by the country's military regime. I have also not commented on Maikel Nabil, even though in many ways, for an Indian, he embodies the greatest of our nonviolent traditions and we could take a lesson from him.

However, tonight I feel compelled to write. Not because Egypt's revolution has stalled or 'Arab Spring' has come to a halt (as many western commenters insist, perhaps all too wishfully). I write because I am tired of being asked why there are still protesters at Tahrir; why they are not more concerned with the country's economic development; why the country's activists are still fighting.

I find the questions depressing. Mostly because these questions are deeply imbued with imperialist views of the 'Arabs' and of Egypt. These are questions that assume that some how when the 'difficulties' are over, Egypt's elite (and how Fanonian is that!) will go back to doing business as usual with Europe and northern America. It ignores the possibility that by the time Egypt's revolution is complete (perhaps in a couple of decades), neither Europe nor America will have the hegemonic political or economic influence to even impact its future.

Also for the record, and just in case, here are my answers: the American Revolution would not have stopped when British conceded on tax rates. Neither would the French accept the pre-revolution heirarchies; and the Russians would scoff at the monarchy after their revolutions. The whole point of revolutions is that they leave nothing unturned.

So without appropriating the narrative space the Egyptians deserve for themselves, let me point to two blog posts I wrote earlier this year: one that considered the past, and the other that pointed the way to the future.

And I want to explicitly point out something I firmly believe: historically Egypt, Turkey and Persia have been the oldest and most clear centres of power in the region, and by extension in other parts of the world (especially Europe).  I believe that what we are witnessing is a resurgence of the three, in very different ways and levels. I also believe that the three will find their own spheres of influence and not necessarily go to war - there is little evidence that there is ample 'narcissism of minor differences' to make them compete in bloody ways for that regional power and influence.

This resurgence is all the more interesting (and perhaps possible) because it is occurring alongside the decline of western hegemony: US has shown itself incapable of maturing into history while western Europe is declining  into insignificance after nearly five hundred years of direct and indirect hegemony.

Back in March, I wrote: "In the long term, these convulsions of history are unescapable. They will continue - not on media schedules and not for the next few weeks - but into the next couple of decades as historic changes do!  At the end, those who put short term interests over long term paradigm shifts will find themselves on the wrong side of history."

I stand by that statement and the analysis even more than ever. What we are witnessing is not a blip in time but a massive and extraordinary change.  Not SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Egypt Army's junta) nor USA's paid stooges, nor Saudi Arabia's useful idiots, nor Europe's favourite business boys will be able to withstand the wave that has risen.  And whether the revolutionaries stand or fall, live or die, are incarcerated or free, is immaterial. The change is inevitable. The only choice is the side we choose - within Egypt, and abroad - to stand. 

And this is why it is necessary to note tonight, even as pitched battles rage in Tahrir Square and Alexandria and elsewhere in Egypt, and protests continue to shake up regimes in the region, that the revolution is not over. Not by a long shot!

No matter how much money and weapons (and 'non-lethal technologies') western nations continue to provide their stooges and clients in the region, the balance of power has already shifted. Yes the convulsions of history have not ceased; yes, the changes are incomplete. But there is no going back. It now only about waiting to see where the sands settle - and that is entirely the choice the people of Egypt (and elsewhere in the region). The rest of us are no more than spectators, and if we choose to be on the right side of history - allies.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Very Illiberal Phenomenon Amongst European Liberals

This post is an attempt to articulate - instead of fulminate on twitter - a strange phenomenon that I have long observed, often been annoyed by, but never tried to describe: in the past decade of living in Europe, I have found that self-professed 'liberals' - who are actually not liberals but merely left-of-centre ideologues - of this continent have a short-hand for dismissing political, economic, historical and/or cultural views that they cannot refute: simply accuse the person of being 'posh.'

Let me explain what I mean by just one example: a few weeks ago, I was at dinner with friends and was seated next to a Scandinavian journalist, with usual impeccable leftist credentials. We discussed events in the Middle East and North Africa, economic development in BRIC nations, Indian foreign policy and of course, European politics.  I disagreed with much of what he said and was clear in my disagreement, backing each point with relevant information and reasoning. As the dessert course came around, this journalist had run out of convincing arguments for his stance.  So he chose to pull out the final WMD: he pointed out that my views were obviously wrong because I was part of India's elite!  Then, with classic European panache, he backed this statement by asking me my caste.

Fortunately, by this moment, the dinner had come to an end and I left; sadly without tipping the coffee pot over his head. 

Now this was not a particularly isolated event. This sort of conversation happens every few weeks, in various countries, with people of varying European nationalities. In fact, I got into a very similar conversation yesterday which led to a furious rant on twitter (scroll down my TL, if you really must). In fact some gems from yesterday included: a reminder that as Hindu I obviously didn't quite understand the purpose of reincarnation the way a Buddhist would (yes I know!); that I should learn from some well recognised Indian authors (ironically all from extremely privileged backgrounds that I could never even dream of equalling) about the reality of Indian poverty; and finally, my 'elite' situation in India prevents me from understanding the true horror of gender inequality faced by Indian women. Never mind that all these gems originated from members of London's white, economically comfortable, politically powerful, cultural establishment! 

I got to thinking back on the number of times views that discomfit, challenge or refute dominant 'western' (read European/American) public narratives are either excluded from debate or merely dismissed by similar accusations of elitism.  I remembered when listeners of a Barcelona radio programme emailed the host to point out that as I spoke Spanish I was therefore was too elite to understand the "real poverty" in India (never mind, that none of these children of welfare state had ever even been to India!). I remembered the anti-racism activist who breezily commended me on "integrating well" into Europe simply because I wore western clothes and went on beach holidays.  I was reminded of the journalist who patronisingly asked me about India and its obviously brutal desire to build dams that flooded villages and, worse still, precious archaeology sites, simply to fuel economic development. Unfortunately, the frequency and ubiquity of these incidents is such we could be here for an extremely long time.

Yet in these strange interactions, there is a pattern to be found. Very few of the above are right-of-centre. In meetings with journalists from conservative media outlets, I may be challenged to defend a viewpoint, but I have never yet been patronised. In meetings with conservative politicians, thinkers, and academics across the European continent, I have been disagreed with, but rarely have I been dismissed as 'elitist' or 'posh' or even most rudely, 'an upper caste.'  In fact, I begin to think this is a particularly illiberal aspect of Europe's self-professed liberals! 

Of course, the accusations of elitism are absurd when levelled by a historically privileged, white, middle-class man even in the simplest of equations. However, they take on a particularly ridiculous aspect when levelled at someone - like me - who has spent most of her life fighting for the very privileges my accusers take for granted: right to live where and how I want; ability to work at a job that I love; right to be friends and socialise with people without cultural constraints; the opportunity to read and learn and speak my mind.  And yes, even these are privileges that I have fought all my life for: a university education that was made possible only through merit-based scholarships and minimum wage jobs; the opportunity to write - and yes, that too is privilege as I neither have the familial riches nor the welfare state to pay my bills while I pursue my 'creative' ambitions; the very small liberty to pick my own partner or indeed choose not to marry at all.  

Strangely enough, if I were from a truly elite background, born to rich and powerful parents, married to other rich and powerful people, but could spout leftist incoherence about India and the world, and never once challenged the dominant paradigms of the hegemonic narratives, I would be welcomed as a darling of this very European 'liberal' circle. 

You see, my crime - at least in the eyes of western 'liberals' - is the same as that of many millions of Indians (and indeed others of the developing world) who are increasingly climbing past the historical economic and political barriers to claim an equal spot at the table: we are the wrong kind of 'elite.'  Self-made, self-taught, fighters to the core, I and many more like me are elite because we have made our way from scratch. And because we are self-made, we are unfettered by the Fanonian psychological baggage that plagues the old established elites from the former colonies. Because we are self-made, we are not beholden to anyone else for our intellectual, economic or political successes. And we are frightening because we cannot be controlled or indeed patronised. 

In fact, the only way the western illiberal liberal has to deal with this upcoming 'elite' from developing countries is by dismissing us as 'posh' (complete with its not so subtle corollary of de-racination). Ironically enough, as the world changes (and faster every day), even that won't keep us out of the gates and silent for long. 

Friday, September 30, 2011

Gilad Atzmon's The Wandering Who: Incisive, Provocative and Sometimes Dangerous to Read

Reading is such a personal exercise that the slightest variance can utterly transform the experience and meaning of a book. Remember the affection you hold that mediocre paperback? All because you read it in the golden haze of a summer romance. Or the brilliant, luminous award winner that turns your stomach simply because you read it while nursing a broken heart? I had a strange twist on these normal reading experiences last week. Gilad Atzmon's new book, shall be forever imprinted in my mind as a dangerous one to read!

I tweeted as I began reading The Wandering Who: A Study of Jewish Identity Politics and within hours found myself neck-deep, not in the book itself (I had barely made it to page twenty), but in a maelstrom of utter madness: hateful e-mails, bizarre comments on my blog, fringe Zionist blogs that hurled accusations that I was the newest avatar of the West's contemporary unholy trinity: an anti-Semite, a Nazi sympathizer, and a Holocaust denier. Mind you, all this for saying not whether I liked or agreed with the book but simply because I was reading it. So right at the outset, you have been warned: read the book at your own risk!

As for me, while I read the book, I found myself growing more baffled by the smear campaign both against me (in a very tiny comparative measure) and against Atzmon. The book is certainly provocative, but it doesn't warrant being called anti-Semitic; it is certainly written by a curious, questioning mind, but nothing suggests Holocaust denial; it is definitely critical of Israel's polity and policies, but that hardly merits being smeared as Nazi. In fact, the book is an extensive, thoughtful, informed study of Zionism and the politically charged narratives around, by and for Israel, and their often troublesome, even painful consequences for many Jews. (Note: Atzmon differentiates quite clearly between those who follow Judaism as a religion, are affiliated to it by birth, and those who follow a politico-religious version of the same).

The book begins on a particularly poignant note: the first moment of recognition by the writer of his own belonging to the larger world (brought on by his discovery of jazz), a moment that ruptures the tribal isolation of his upbringing in Israel, and provides initial links and closer affinities with those not of his 'blood tribe' but of a community of intellect, passions and affections. This initial moment is a familiar one: similar explorations of individual and collective identities have been undertaken by many, from varied ethnic, religious, racial, sexual backgrounds. Replace the term Jew/Jewish in the account with another minority group and the book would hardly merit a raised eyebrow.

However, for Atzmon, this initial questioning itself is fraught: Atzmon finds himself in the first Lebanon war, as part of the Israeli military apparatus, and not only questioning but ashamed of his 'blood tribe.' At an Israeli prison camp, he looks at the prisoners, and recognises acute parallels with Nazi concentration camps where his family perished. It is a painful and honest (and brave) moment in the book when Atzmon realises that he is on the wrong side of the fence: in Lebanon, he is the guard, the oppressor, the war criminal, and in a moment a terrible honesty, no different from a Nazi.

From this initial discovery, Atzmon sets off on a personal journey of redemption and it is this long quest that is recorded in this book, complete with its myriad questions, flashes of insights, painful recognition of truths only half-veiled and even less understood. In many ways, and this is both a strength and weakness of the book, this journey is recorded in its full rawness, shorn of polish, literary flourishes, disclaimers and caveats. The raw despair and anger bring passion to the prose which is any writer's greatest strength; at the same time, that very passionate, provocative writing makes it easy for smear campaigners (who never actually read what they attack) to attack the writer. Moreover, at times the hot language obstructs the many valuable arguments Atzmon mounts.

Reading the book, I was consistently reminded of the ways in which 19th century European nationalism impacted the rise of political Islam, in ways not so dissimilar from the construction of Zionist ideology and narratives. Both rely on a combination of persistent victimhood and an aggressive secularised self-assertion (not God but the believer shall resolve all trouble); they also see their own collective selves as constantly under threat and the 'other' as nothing more than the enemy. The narcissism of minor differences indeed!

At many points in the book, I was left thinking of Pakistan, the other religion-based nation-state created around the same time as Israel, which, even after six decades, still struggles with a fragmented sense of self, with an national identity based only on its opposition to others.  Focussing on Israel, although the reasoning is equally apt for many other collectives and individuals, Atzmon ably points out the dangers posed by an exclusivist, mono-faceted identity - collective or individual - as well as its horrendous costs.

Atzmon's most provocative sections are those where he addresses the ways in which the dominant Zionist narrative mobilises governments, institutions and individuals in nations beyond Israel. Furthering Mearsheimer and Walt's study of the Israel lobby, Atzmon links popular Zionist idolisation of Hebraic myths of the Book of Esther to specific Zionist economic and political motivations, actions and consequences, and marshalls much historical and current evidence of the "sayanim" or Jews living in exile/diaspora who act for Israel even while professing loyalty to the nation he/she inhabits. (Again this final point is not so different from Islamophobic accusations hurled at Muslims minorities).

Although Atzmon makes a far reaching argument, it is also at this point that he overstates his case, falling into the same Judeo-centric trap he critiques at so many other points in the book. While he argues that Jews are not merely passive victims of history, but also exercise significant agency (in the past and now), here he reduces the "goyim" to the hapless victims of a Jewish/Israeli lobby, thus undermining a powerful case against an organised Zionist lobbying apparatus in the power circles of many western nation-states.

Others have described this book as provocative and insightful, and a useful for read for both Jews and non-Jews. It is all these indeed! But it is also a book that leaves one with more questions than answers, with much to think about, and many faint glimmers of questions to come. Ideally it is the first of many books to explore the topic.

Finally, it must also be noted that in content and style, this is also a quintessentially Israeli book, living up fully to the Israel-created stereotype of the abrasive, brash, arrogant, sabra who uses a hammer to kill a fly. Perhaps Atzmon could have made his case in a more circumspect manner, perhaps even employed gentler language. Perhaps then he - and his readers - would not incite such hysterical aggression and smears. Then again, sometimes a brash, abrasive provocateur is what is required as a catalyst for genuine debate. And this provocative, brash, insightful book is definitely that! 

Friday, September 23, 2011

As for Rushdie and Mistry, so for Gilad Atzmon

UPDATE: The usual Zionist fanatic smear tactics -  i.e, accusations of Nazi sympathies, Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism-  have been applied to me by on-line anonymous cowards. Not surprisingly, these are the same three charges that being flung by the same rabid loons at the writer and musician, Gilad Atzmon and the eminent scholar, John Mearsheimer. Fortunately, Prof. John Mearsheimer has meticulously and very articulately dismantled the outright lies by these fanatics. If you are a Zionist fanatic, you would not care for the truth and need not bother. However, if you are just a regular reader of this blog and are baffled by the current kerkuffle, you may want to read this piece which details and dismantles the hateful lies and concentrated smear campaign conducted by a handful of fanatics with the sole and clear intent to shut down all reasoned debate on Israel.

And the original post: I am beginning to realise that at least once a year, I use this blog to tell off fanatics. So far, it has been Islamist nut-jobs who got offended by my piece on Salman Rushdie. Then some time later, I wrote about Mumbai and Rohinton Mistry and some Hindu fundamentalists (what an oxymoron that is!) were equally offended. Both these links here will take you to what I wrote in those instances.

Last week I tweeted about Gilad Atzmon's new book and that has apparently offended some Zionist club of fanatics. Apparently, according to tweets and blogs and other online fora where these fanatics dwell, my reading of a book by a dissident Israeli brands me an "anti-Semite", a Holocaust denier and/or a Nazi supporter.

Full disclosure: I know Gilad professionally as we share the same literary agent although by no stretch of imagination can we be considered friends. I like his music and respect his writing and political convictions although there are many points of disagreement as well. And we are bound by our mutual respect and affection for Shimon Tzabar, the literary legend and human being par excellence (and one of the few utterly moral people I have had the privilege of knowing). 

What I wrote for Rushdie applies now to the Zionist nut-jobs accusing me of anti-Semitism, and beautifully demonstrating their own narrow-minded, ignorant racism in their comments. I will not repeat all of that piece as you can check the link above if you really care to learn but I will make a specific point.

Of the many Zionist accusations, the one I find most ridiculous is the one where I am apparently 'playing to a Muslim audience.' It shows the ignorance and idiocy of my Zionist accusers who see a brown woman with an exotic name and assume she must be a Muslim. So for the record, let me repeat what I wrote to the Islamist nut-jobs way back when and redirect it to my  Zionist accusers (Aside: hilarious how Anton Block's narcissism of minor differences applies so well to both):

As a Hindu, I grew up in a household where books were kissed (like Rushdie's household). But more importantly, I also grew up in a home where pens, notebooks, and more recently - with typically Hindu logic – laptops are worshipped. Every year on Diwali, you see, we are required to offer prayers to Durga – the goddess of war – and to our weapons that she is believed to embody and inhabit.  In my childhood, my family would clean and polish old swords, spears, revolvers and rifles on every Diwali. And at midnight, these weapons would be placed on the altar and anointed with kumkum, turmeric, ghee. We would conduct an aarti, the polished metal of the weapons gleaming through the fragrant smoke of diyas and agarbattis.

While I was still a child, my grandmother began the tradition of placing our schoolbooks and pens on the altar instead of weapons. She said that in the coming world, these would be our weapons. That tradition endures and to this day, I place my laptop, even draft manuscripts, on the altar on Diwali. It is a tradition I plan to uphold and live for the rest of my life.

The point I am making is simple: keep those threats and hate mails coming!

I am not about to back down from saying what I believe. And I am not about to back down from fighting for what I believe. And I am not – like some writers – about to “self-censor” my writing because some pathetic, cowardly, creature out there may be offended.

This is not about Rushdie or Mistry or Atzmon! This is about my right to words, stories, opinions. And I will be damned if I let go of those without a fight!

A final point to note: fanatics are not only to be found on all ends of the spectrum, but they also show the same lack of imagination when it comes to the depth of their arguments. Good to know that there is a meeting point for fanatics of all ilk somewhere even though its marked by an acute absence of intelligence and imagination.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Lessons Learned and Unlearned: 9/11 Ten Years Later

Ten years ago, I spent most of the September 11, scratching my head and trying to figure out how the assassination of the "Lion of Panjshir," Ahmad Shah Massoud would impact Afghanistan, and by extension, India.  Massoud had been assassinated two days before, and suddenly it seemed that Pakistan-backed Taliban were not only unstoppable but unbeatable.

I spoke that day to a friend, an Afghan refugee who worked on mental health issues for young children, trying to apply his education from Delhi University to people in the refugee camps in India.  At twenty-five, his homeland etched in his memory, yet his upbringing firmly done in north India, he would often hum Manna Dey's famous song, eliding both his longing for Afghanistan and his love for Bollywood in one go.  On September 11, 2001, I remember his desperation at Massoud's killing. "It is over. It is lost. We will never return."

Yet a few hours later, things had changed dramatically. All the channels had the same image of the airplanes flying into the Twin Towers. Although the myriad emotions continued to play havoc in my mind for a very long time (and inspired - and were worked out in - my second novel, With Krishna's Eyes), after those first anxious hours of phoning and locating friends and family, a ritual that follows terrorist attacks that we in India were already so accustomed to, and that the Americans learned on that bright September day, my focus turned back to figuring out the impact of the attacks.

The impact on America appeared clear: even in my years of living there, I had noticed a propensity to extreme positions, with little understanding of the long term consequences. In my twenties, and still a history buff, I had ascribed this American trait to a lack of historic grounding: most other nations have lived through - and more importantly - survived multiple depredations of war, famine, disease. Most of us, around the world, have embedded cultural memories, if that is not too much of a shorthand, of the possibilities of utter destruction; we take moments of peace and calm as anomalies, luxurious ones, but still rare and to be cherished. The US, on the other hand, has had a nearly charmed national life. Despite the hiccups of history, it seems to have eluded the travails that time brings to nations. Until of course you consider that five hundred years are merely a blink of an eye in time.

After 9/11, it was inevitable that US would go to war, all guns blazing. That in itself was a game-changer for Afghanistan. More importantly, for me, considering the impact of the attacks in New Delhi, the American urge for war would also be a huge game-changer for Pakistan.  What, of course, I could not foresee, on that evening of September 11, was the USA's idiotic and entirely self-defeating military action in Iraq.

And perhaps that is the other, unintended consequence of 9/11 that needs to be considered. USA obviously learnt no lesson, except that having achieved predictable sympathy for its military action against the Taliban, it grew quickly drunk on its own might and victim narratology, gave up all veneer of being anything but the newest avatar of imperialism. L'roi est mort, vive l'roi indeed!

Over a year later, as the American drums of war grew louder, the reports of swift but clear erosions of its democratic principles at home and international conventions abroad grew louder, I found myself in a long discussion with a motley group of journalist and analyst friends about USA's apparently unchecked and growing hegemony and the policies India needed to adopt to deal with it.

Since mid-90s as the impact of climate change has become apparent, I have argued that India's greatest challenge in the 21st century shall be an impending refugee crisis as increasing amounts of Bangladesh's low lying lands are swallowed by a rising sea. I have seen this as a creeping issue, reaching catastrophic proportions towards the middle of the century.  (An aside: having consistently analysed Pakistan's nuclear capacities in the past twenty years, I have always believed that India could - in the worst case scenario - suffer a devastating but not a mortal blow. The consequences of such a blow for Pakistan however would be fatal. And this is a completely political, military analysis not an emotional, human one).  However, with the changed global scenario in the aftermath of 911, and the increasing numbers of American projects gaming the break up of Pakistan, I found myself altering the factors, geographically and chronologically.

Even in 2002, it was apparent that Pakistan was rapidly heading towards failure as a state, with a potential break up. The erosion of Saudi Arabia's influence is a given, with the only crucial point being the time scale. It has neither a sustainable economy nor a clear model of human development that can replace its oil-based politico-economic influence in the future. At the same time, despite Pakistan's many apologists in the US, mostly Americans who had benefited from the Afghan-Soviet war, the writing has been clear on the wall.  This artificial buffer state as discussed in details in the Mountbatten papers, declassified by UK at the start of the millennium, has little to sustain it. The issue is not if Pakistan will splinter, but when and how. For India - at the risk of sounding cold - the issue is not of dealing with Pakistan until that date, but working out a strategy for containing the fall out when the inevitable occurs.

While our politicians will meekly declare that "a strong, stable Pakistan is in India's interest," few will go further. The splintering of the state would not only create issues of nuclear weapons falling into hands of various rogue non-state elements (see aside above), but also create a major humanitarian catastrophe. Fact still remains that we abut Pakistan's longest and most accessible border. Can we honestly say we will be able to turn away millions of clamouring civilians fleeing unimaginable violence, hunger and other travails, when Pakistan falls apart? Will we be able to withstand the enormous international pressure brought to bear upon us? And worse still, how would we cope with admitting millions of a people raised in what is mostly a dictatorship, mostly illiterate and brainwashed for three or more generations to hate everything about India? At the very least, we would have to write off all chances of seeing a "shining India" in any shape or form for many decades.

I still hold by this scenario that I sketched out at that discussion nearly ten years ago. The only change I make to it is this: our analysts and policy-makers are still avoiding all thought of it even as the date for facing this challenge grows ever closer, ever faster.  But there are other consequences of that September attack on the US, most unforeseen and not all devoid of hope and grim.

The "Arab Spring" is clearly on the way to disproving the myth of the global ummah as a monolith. As political aspirations drive major changes in the West Asia and North Africa, identities other than religious ones are occupying their rightful space in the political imaginary. This shattering of the simplistic myth of a monolithic global Muslim identity, one that has often meant that bulk of Indian Muslims have been seen as traitors to the Islamist cause by jihadist groups (and yet suspected of secret sympathy by far too many both in India and abroad), is also one that is backfiring on Pakistan. With Saudi Arabia demanding that Pakistan pay the piper with its own troops, Bahrain using Pakistani mercenaries to suppress its own populace, and other countries in the region discovering that religion alone is no foundation for political aspirations (a lesson that we all should have learned in 1971) means long-standing political disputes - internal and external - will need to be negotiated and discussed on different parameters.

The splintering of this monolith shall be most painful for Pakistan. As General Zia once quipped (and I paraphrase): If Turkey stopped being Muslim, it would still be Turkey; if Egypt stopped being Muslim, it would still be Egypt; but without Islam, Pakistan will just be India. The dangers of constructing an artificial national identity based solely on religion, and by exclusion of all else, have never been clearer!

Nowhere is this more important - for India at least - as in the case of Kashmir.  In the past ten years, India has benefited from USA's wars with foreign jihadis ignoring the region to fight elsewhere. Just the figures on ex-filtration of jihadis from Kashmir since 9/11 are evidence of this. This ex-filtration has contributed to the diminishing influence of the Kashmir separatists: each call for bandh has been less likely to be enforced with violence and therefore less likely to succeed; as fear diminishes, voter turn outs have improved and political engagement increases. However, much remains to be done, mostly by the Indian state and polity: a strengthened human rights commission (like the one that produced the recent report on the unidentified graves) is a good start, as is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission proposed by Omar Abdullah.  Other steps need to be taken at centre and state levels which will be discussed in a different post (too many and too long for this one).  However one thing is clear: Kashmir ought to be, now and in future, off the agenda for any talks with Pakistan, or indeed elsewhere. There is no point "negotiating" a resolution with a state teetering on failure,and one that would likely cease to exist in the foreseeable future.

Fortunately, the above two factors - a failing Pakistan and the long term consequences (still many unseen but hinted clearly) of the "Arab Spring" - also point to one last point: it is time for India to grow out of its narrative of Partition. As identities other than religion come to fore, it is time for India to recognise that we need not be held hostage to the narratives of the past century. No where is this more obvious than in Kashmir which ought to be treated as another part of the nation-state and not in quick repeats as a spoilt child, a hostage, or a symbol of the success of our non-religious national identity. As changes sweep through West Asia and North Africa, the urge and need for victim narratives for Islam as well as the efficacies of usual red flags is being steadily eroded.

This provides us - India - a clear opportunity of forging a new national narrative that can move beyond simplistic Hindu-Muslim binaries. The internal political and economic impact of this can be extraordinary, while building on our long standing tradition of secularist polity.  Moreover, this realisation can help us re-forge earlier external links, formulate clearer foreign policy towards West Asia and north Africa, one based on mutual interests and not the fear of an imaginary fifth column within. This also would mean recalibrating our relationships with many nations around the globe, to our own advantage. (Again, too many steps and ideas on this but will write another post soon).

Ten years ago, there a fold in history that impacted all of us. Although much violence and sorrow has followed, it also opened up a moment of extraordinary opportunity, especially for us in India.  If we can sieze it, then when history is recorded, not too many decades in the future, the ghost of Partition would be seen to have been laid to rest on a bright September morning in New York. 

Monday, August 15, 2011

On Independence Day: Happy Birthday India!

As some of you know, I have been slowly migrating my old blog posts from to this blog. Rather aptly, today I found this post from 2001, written about my father's retirement from a life-time of serving in various branches of the government. I have added some updates at the end. Happy Independence day!

August 15, 2001: This Independence Day, I have a confession to make: I get tears in my eyes every time I see the tricolour flutter against the sky. I also get teary eyed when I see young Indian men in uniform, and when I hear the first strains of Vande Mataram. Of course, I swell up bigger than a balloon with pride at the same time.  Of course, I understand that this form of sentimental patriotism is not considered "cool" by many. It is not nearly as fashionable as mehndi, tattoos and pierced noses that epitomize "Indian" chic these days. But, let me tell you, it is a lot harder to maintain.

India is not an easy country to love. Our politicians are a joke; our courts are a travesty; and the bureaucrats are equal to the most heinous form of torture imaginable. The "system", that all of us love to blame, ensures that all of us are pulverized into submission by a steady, daily, grind. Try getting a child into a half-decent school and you'll realise how omnipotent the "system" is. The parents are put to test, not the child. In fact, the child's intelligence, energy, talent count for nothing even in the so-called "progressive" schools. What counts is the parent's position and their bank balance. Or try getting a complaint registered at the police station. From chain-snatching to domestic violence to murder; you'll feel that the cops are doing you a favour by hearing you out.

In fact, even death is a fairly humiliating business in the country, since the doctor signing the death certificate, the police constables, the morgue, all want a "cut" from the family to "expedite" the matters.

So why the hell do I get teary eyed at the sight of the tricolour? Well, I have a story for you: Back in 1961, a young man from Allahabad University joined the defense forces. On the first day of training, he found a sign - a fairly common one around most cantonments in India - that said: "Watan ki izzat, unit ki izzat, apni izzat." (Country's honour, unit's honour, your honour). Unlike many people, that twenty-year-old believed the words and decided to live by them.

In the ensuing years, he served the country in two wars and countless special operations. He received no decorations, no special medals or awards. Instead, he chose to become one of the "unsung" ones, who would do the work but could never receive the credit.  As he grew older, his willingness to serve the country took him to foreign lands and to tougher assignments. And to many disappointments. He learned that the most powerful enemies of the country are those who profess to serve it: the bureaucrats who put personal interests before the nation's; senior officers who care more for the petty loyalties to their particular branch of service; the journalists who care more for the story than for the lives of those who defend the country; the academics who sell their integrity for an invitation to attend an overseas conference.

I often wonder how that man coped with such disappointment? How could he continue speaking up, drawing the line, practising patriotism day after day, when he was penalized for it by his own people? How could he bear to carry on, paying the price - daily - for his integrity, his dedication? How could he preserve his patriotism in face of daily pummeling of his ideals for so many years? I asked him that recently, mostly because of the anger I felt on his behalf.

His reply was sanguine, calm, self-assured: "This country has always had 90% asses and 10% horses. The horses ensure that the country continues forward when the asses would drag it backwards. And a horse's job is simply to run."

Independence Day 2001 shall be the first in forty years that this man will see as a civilian. He will watch the ceremonies on TV and not stand at attention to watch the tricolour unfurl above him. And watching him keep the faith, I promise that for just one day of the year, I will not threaten to immigrate to a country that is easier to love. More importantly, that I will try to keep the faith for at least as long as he has. 

Easy philosophy perhaps, but it didn't take away the bitterness I felt for all that had been denied him by "the system." He didn't seem to mind as much. He explained, "I didn't look for payments for my loyalty. And as far as not receiving what was due to me, no patriot ever does. Haven't you learned anything from history?"

You see, that unsung hero, who is hanging up his boots, is my father. And he is a constant reminder of the sacrifices my ancestors have made for this land. He is also the reason that I cry at the sight of my tricolour.
But I feel proud for a different reason: My father is not alone. Every where I turn, in civilian clothing and uniform, in software development firms and the rice fields, in all parts of the country (no matter how strife torn the region may seem), there are innumerable others exactly like my father. These are the unsung heroes who give everything to the country and ask for nothing in return.

And you know something else that gives me hope? Even 10% of one billion people is one hell of a lot of patriots. Happy Independence Day.

August 15, 2011: Updates: I still get teary-eyed at the sight of our flag and our soldiers. My father is happily retired, and now serving, not the government of India but the country with his many social welfare and upliftment activities which include haranguing politicians and bureaucrats out of their complacency and into acting. Both my parents also spend a lot of time educating neighbours, friends, absolute strangers on basics of civic responsibility. Sometime that makes me worry about their safety, but over all, I am proud that they stand up for the "aam aadmi" (although they do shamelessly use the privilege bestowed by their age and grey hair to do so). As the adage goes, "all that is necessary for evil to triumph, is for good men to do nothing." And that is never an option. 

In the past ten years, India has become "chic," with our growing economic strength and concurrent global changes. Yet many of the systemic problems remain. Yet I remain optimistic, perhaps more than ever. India has never been one for cataclysmic revolutions, but slow, deep-rooted yet gradual change. And those are more visible each day, especially for those of us who have clear memories of how far we've come. Is the journey over? Not by a long shot! Have we gotten as far as we could have? No! But the dynamism, hope, the "buzz" on every street corner of India is evidence that we are - clamorously, with many arguments, many sulks, dharnas, step backs, and optimism - are still heading in the right direction. It is true that our journey is all too often despite the state, and often in face of great obstacles set up by our political class, but "bottom-up" change is always more enduring than a "top down" solution. And that gives me hope. 

Finally, I have not emigrated after all. Globalisation and India have conspired well to create a whole new class of Indian expats, those who work, live, study abroad with no intention of cutting our ties with home. I am one of them, and despite the small hassles of travelling the world with that blue passport, I am not giving up mine! 

Happy Independence Day.  

Note: My father has received decorations for his military service. However for most of his life, he was an intelligence officer. And in another blog post in the future, I promise to make a case for reforming and strengthening our intelligence sector. But that is for another day. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Still Angry at the Hoax. And It is Not Just About Amina

Days after the Amina hoax came to light, and despite the reams of virtual ink wasted by the media on the story, I have found myself feeling furious each time I think of the way the story unfolded.

I got news of the story when it suddenly showed up on my twitter feed, with various activists and journalists being informed that “Amina” had possibly been abducted by Syrian security forces.  I re-tweeted the initial abduction tweet and then checked the blog in question.  And that is where things got messy!

While I am no Syria expert, I noticed some odd details, none of which made the story impossible but did stand out as improbable: “Amina” seemed to have a close, very physically affectionate relationship with her father, with a level of intimacy that seemed unusual. Perhaps, this was the Indian in me – and we share quite a few cultural traits with west Asian cultures – but the idea of a father writing on his daughter’s body – even if it were identifying details to prepare for a demonstration – seemed somehow culturally implausible.  Similarly, the idea of any father standing up to state security in a totalitarian state with impunity seemed fanciful.

The third and to me, most telling detail, was the lack of access and information “Amina” had to and about feminine cultural spaces.  Regardless of sexuality, and very much like India, most west Asian cultures continue to have numerous, intimate, powerful communal spaces for women.  In fact, as a teenager and young adult in New York and Boston, I had experienced this lack of shared feminine spaces as a distressing albeit hard to articulate aspect of culture shock. I still find myself seeking these in Europe, and often find them amongst friends from Africa and Asia, instead of amongst European or American women. As a result “Amina’s” lack of access to women and indeed, her lack of relationship with any women (even her mother) except lovers baffled me.

However, perhaps my own prejudices came through as I decided that these discrepancies were a result of “Amina’s” bi-national identity. Perhaps, I told myself, she was too American, much like the “diaspora” kids we see in India who have little understanding or knowledge of cultural codes.  This sense was heightened as some of the posts reminded me of the old French “harem” paintings, recognisable and yet somehow indefinably fantastic.

Yet I felt also guilty in doubting someone I knew little about. Perhaps it is a measure of my own location – from a former colony, with extensive personal experience as a racially marginalised other in many western countries – that I felt upset by my own doubts.  Accustomed to having my own experience and knowledge doubted and questioned on a regular basis by self-proclaimed “western,” “liberal,” generally white and male experts of India, and especially as I do not fit their accepted colonially-rooted stereotypes of a woman of colour, I felt acutely disloyal at doubting one of the sorority on such grounds.

And here again, is the continuing tragedy of our pasts: the powerful feel no need to question their lack of knowledge; while the historically dis-empowered and marginalised are hesitant to assert what we know to be true!

I also felt particularly hesitant in pointing this out as any doubts expressed about “Amina’s” identity were quickly shouted down on social media. A telling discrepancy showed up here: Arab bloggers and tweeple who were the first to express their doubts were shouted down by “Amina” supporters from Europe and north America. Those doubting her accounts, despite their greater knowledge of the Syrian culture and politics (and great potential risk to themselves as they looked for this fictional heroine in Assad’s prisons) were branded “homophobic” by primarily white liberal supporters from Europe and America.  Ugly prejudices of race trumped any kinship on sexuality, just as feminism(s) of women of colour has been clipped by white middle-class female condescension for decades past! 

Soon after the initial look at her blog, I stepped out of that debate, mostly refusing to comment or re-tweet the hysteria that built around the story. Still, I followed the story, all the while plagued by doubts: had this young woman built so many layers of anonymity that she could not be located? Were the cultural discrepancies intentional as part of the exercise of hiding from authorities? That perhaps she was indeed suffering in some prison and I was being unfair?

And perhaps this is what continues to make me angry about the Amina Hoax:  First, the apparently “new and equal” world of social media replicated the ancient colonialist dynamic of first, locating a cultural informer who fit “western” criteria of acceptability based on what should be long-discarded cultural stereotypes; second, other reliable cultural voices were doubted and drowned out as they neither pandered to nor fit the stereoptype of the reliable cultural informer; and finally, although many from the region (most notably Electronic Intifada) were involved in debunking the hoax, it finally needed western (and white) journalists to provide the weight of credibility to the debunking!

While Macmaster is a rather common example of a particularly reprehensible brand of ideologue and activist, the wider issues mentioned above are far more disturbing as they is go far beyond this particular hoax.  

Edward Said’s daughter Najla Said said her father would think the hoaxer “Tom MacMaster a perfect example of Orientalism itself.”  I can not but agree!  This works on two levels: first, there is little doubt that Macmaster feels he could portray the “subaltern other” better than she could himself, and indeed, shows little remorse or any moral compunction in self-righteously appropriating a trebly marginalised voice – that of a lesbian woman in Syria – despite or indeed perhaps because of his status as a privileged white straight man!

Second, much of the western media – as spiked has point out – actively colluded in the marginalisation of other voices and privileging “Amina’s” over them simply because she confirmed their own prejudices and agendas. (Here, hats off to the handful of dedicated journalists who first debunked the story and have since refused to insert themselves into the story as heroes!)  

While spiked does not mention the imbalance of power linked to race and ethnicity at the heart of the current hoax, this is worth considering.  Much of western discourse about the other continues to be filtered through a series of approved cultural informants, who are chosen not for their accuracy or veracity but for their ability to continuously re-affirm the accepted narratives about the “other.”

A look at a whole range of news stories, novels, films all point to this. The “immigrant” novel, the breathlessly narrated “behind the veil” accounts, the “save the natives from themselves” movies, all contain one or both of the following: a white authoritative privileged narrator whose race alone confers veracity to the account; and/or native informers whose veracity is conferred not by their own ability or story but because of a the white male narrator’s acceptance of it.

It was this dynamic that Macmaster embodies and exploited.  Sadly enough, much of the US and EU mainstream and social media actively participated in his game, and continues to do so.  

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Are We Really Secular: Revisiting a Blog post from 2002

This is a piece originally posted for on April 15, 2002. I have been slowly migrating some of the old pieces to this blog and felt this was a useful reminder, especially as the Congress appears to be playing its usual "secular" card instead of addressing the pressing political, economic and governance issues. Some of the players are the same; what is different is the country. Moreover, the Mumbai attacks saw a shift amongst the self-avowed Muslim leadership in much of the country (although not amongst the Congress and Abdullah family members). And that is a good sign...for the future. 

Are We Really Secular? 

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee recently made a highly publicised visit to the riot-torn state of Gujarat. He visited the temporary camps where riot victims are being housed, and the violence hit neighbourhoods. With great sensitivity, he spoke of the "shame" the riots had brought to India, and how he would not be able to travel overseas because of that shame. Wiping his eyes, he also spoke at length of the need to protect the minorities.

Then he visited Godhra, the site of the train massacre that sparked off the current violence. And there, Vajpayee did not speak of the shame of such violence. He didn't visit the firefighters who were prevented from reaching the flames and putting them out. He never found out that the same firefighters are receiving daily death-threats for simply doing their jobs. He also didn't speak to any of the families of those who were killed in the massacre. Many in India - including me - wondered why he didn't feel "shame" at the carnage in Godhra, or at the killing of Hindus and Sikhs in Jammu and Kashmir.

What I am about to write now will be immediately open to charges of "communalism," and yet it must be said. Not for the sake of political games that all the parties are playing, not for the sake of creating more disturbances and riots. But simply for the longer-term benefit of the entire nation: Secularism is one of the greatest principles enshrined in our constitution. It enables a citizen to follow his/her conscience, enables us to pray, believe and live as our own intellect and faith directs us. Yet on a social and political level, secularism is practised more as a convenient method of wooing minority votes.

This means that all political parties and far too many of our "thinking" classes are more interested in minority-ism instead of true secularism. Just a quick look over the events of the past month will show this.

[1] In most of the media (both English media in India and international) the massacre of women and children was passed off as a logical conclusion of "inciting" Muslim anger. One of the leading commentators even explained that by travelling to Ayodhya, chanting "Jai Shree Ram," and thus being "fanatic Hindus", the 58 women and children had invited the wrath of Muslims.

Since when is speech considered sufficient incitement to kill in a democracy? What if a fanatic Hindu used the same argument as defense to kill Muslims, based on the call for namaaz five times a day? Such verbal and logical sophistry simply opens the doors to doom. It also belittles the tragedy that befell not only a small group of people but also the nation at Godhra.

The press also played an interesting role in partisan propaganda. An anonymous email was sent around the world within the hour of the Godhra attack explaining that the "kidnapping" of a Muslim girl by the ramsevaks had led to the massacre. She had, according to the email, been held in the doomed train carriage. No press member - international or Indian - cared to wonder how a group of families travelling with women and children would "kidnap a young girl" and hold her (apparently for rape and worse) in a train carriage full of their family members. No one in the press cared to question the veracity of the mail - until Prem Shankar Jha in Outlook! And the canard did rounds as absolute proven truth. And of course, it now emerges that there was no kidnapping, no girl, and no other "incitement" for the killing.

[2] Of course, in part the current round of violence can be blamed on political parties who have been too keen on proving their "secular" (read minority-ist) credentials. When Sonia Gandhi led a delegation of opposition leaders to the president to protest the riots in Gujarat, I wondered why she or other leaders had not bothered to condemn or even comment on the Godhra tragedy. For nearly forty-eight hours after the attack on the train, no major leader from any national party or the Muslim community had come forward to condemn the attack. Shabana Azmi, Javed Akhtar and their ilk who hog the cameras at every given opportunity didn't care to condemn the attack. And of course, Imam Bukhari, Syed Shahabbuddin, and the Abdullah duo of father and son had suddenly found camera-silence to be a wondrous new phenomenon.

Similarly, the recent attack on the Raghunath Temple in Jammu and Kashmir by terrorists was explained away by secularists as "the temple was not the target." They never explained what the "target" was. This attack of course came after nearly two months of repeatedly foiled terrorist attempts to reach the shrine of Vaishno Devi. Yet, no leader has condemned the attack or criticized it. Interestingly enough, the English media has made practically no mention of these attempts, perhaps in the interest of maintaining "peace."

More than anything else, this silence has led to the anger that to date simmers not only in Gujarat but elsewhere in India. And it grows every day. It is this latent anger within the Hindus that must be discussed and dealt with, not simply written off as some "lunatic fringe" phenomenon.

[3] This majoritarian frustration and anger is also growing due to irresponsible statements from Muslim leaders, statements that go either unchecked or un-critiqued, and often even explained away, by our self-proclaimed secularists. A Muslim Member of Parliament warned that Muslims would soon want their own separate homeland, perhaps having forgotten that they already have done so once. No other MP protested the statement. Neither did the press or the secular "intelligentsia." At the start of the 1990s, the head of Aligarh Muslim University's student union, had announced that there was no question of handing the structure at Ayodhya to the Hindus. "They have thousands of gods. Today they want a temple for Ram, tomorrow it will be for another god." (this statement loses a great of deal of the intended disrespect in translation). Yet that was considered a "secular" statement by the smug left-leaning self-declared "liberal" intelligentsia.

Hundreds of thousands of Kashmiri Pandits still shudder to recall Farooq Abdullah's rallies in the late 1980s when he called for a Kashmir "only for Muslims," and warned that the Hindus should leave for their "own safety." He is now the self-professed messiah of the Indian secularists, and routinely criticises outfits like the VHP and calls for their banning. Similarly, when a Muslim leader announces that he does not believe in the supremacy of the Constitution, Indian republic or the flag, he is considered simply a "devout" Muslim. Should a Hindu ever declare the same, he would be immediately branded a "fanatic and anti-national" (both labels are being currently sported by VHP, RSS and the Bajrang Dal, who have never - to date - questioned the integrity or entity of India).

[4] It is this form of discriminatory public discourse that has contributed to the anger seething in many parts of India. Back in the 1950's, Jawaharlal Nehru was warned by his advisors that if he didn't practise an even-handed secularism, there would be a day when the Hindus in India would be radicalised. However, lust for power ensured that Nehru did not accept the recommendations of the report.

And that radicalisation has already begun. The temple issue and the riots in Gujarat are merely early manifestations of this process. Unless, there is some concrete steps taken by the "secular" leadership, this radicalisation will continue unchecked.

So what can be done? Well, we need to work towards a truly secular state, where the rule of law takes precedence over religious norms. And it must be a state where the "law" is applied evenly. That means that what applies to one community must also apply to the rest. The USA is a good example where "Christianity" (in all its denominational variations) continues to be the majority religion, and yet the rule of law takes precedence over the religious ones. Where national symbols are accepted as the highest of all, over and above all religious, ethnic and faith-driven ones. This means a uniform civil code, another bogey raised by the secularists as "communal".

At present, we have a situation where a Supreme Court decision granting Rs. 25 maintenance a month to a destitute Muslim woman is overturned by Parliament, in the interests of "secularism." And yet, the same party who led that move defends the "supremacy" of the court when it comes to a temple in Ayodhya. Similarly, a law requiring legal registration of ALL places of worship, irrespective of religion, is shot down as being intended to "harass minorities," even as the Supreme Court prohibits Hindus from praying on an undisputed piece of land, which is owned and controlled by a Hindu religious trust. Right now, the burning alive of one missionary and his two children is condemned but the burning alive of 58 women and children is considered "justifiable."

Unless such skewed practice of the discourse of "secularism" is stopped, we are looking at many more riots, much more violence for many years to come. And no matter how many poems are recited by tottering old politicians, the anger within the country will not be assuaged by partisan declarations, discourse or decisions. In the past month, this has become painfully clear.

Another thing has become painfully clear (although perhaps not to the political leadership of the country, given recent state and municipal election results): The upper echelons of the political leadership have no idea about the way people think. Perhaps we need another Prime Minister who would hang his head in shame not only when the dead are from a minority community, but simply because the dead are Indians. 

We could do with a prime minister who would feel a little shame (just enough to prevent a jaunt overseas) when Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists are ethnically cleansed out of Kashmir. And more importantly, we could do with a prime minister who represents a country where 60% of the people are under the age of 35. Such a leader may have more understanding of one simple, yet brand new reality: much of young India doesn't care what the world thinks and we would like our leaders to instead worry about what we think!

At Godhra, Vajpayee was posed some difficult questions by the representatives of the vernacular press. One local correspondent asked him if along with "minority protection" laws, we needed laws to protect the majority community too. Vajpayee responded rather brusquely that he didn't think that the majority needed protection. The correspondent came back with a question that initially stumped Vajpayee. For once the leader renowned for his wit, could only rely on age-worn cliches and platitudes. The question was simple: "If there is no need for such a law, should we wait for more massacres like that of Godhra?" Of course, the minority community may also ask whether they may look forward to more riots.

Vajpayee should think hard about that question, which articulates much of the discomfort that many in India feel. Are we always going to be fighting each other, or will we ever move towards living together? If the answer is to be the latter, then it is time we began talking to each other, forced our leaders to be more responsible and equitable, or perhaps more drastically, got rid of all of them and got some new ones.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Reminiscing Along with My Dad: A Shared Enterprise

Some of you may already know that my father maintains a blog of his own, posting his memories and photos. Since Osama bin Laden's elimination, he has been posting on our days in Pakistan.

Disclosure: Dad is one of the longest serving RAW officers at the Indian embassy in Islamabad. And our time as a family there was full of strange moments. Also, that was one of the major hostile postings for the family and was not made easy by the fact that it was an "under-cover" post.

My dad, as always, has been quite discreet about what it meant to serve in Pakistan, but it is safe to say that it was one of the wilder, more adventurous stints for the family.

For an example, let me tell you one tiny story: before my dad was assigned to Islamabad, the family had been happily living in India's north eastern borders. We lived in a bamboo hut with a snake trench around it; our beds were bamboo rafts placed on four living bamboo trees which had to be trimmed every two days to ensure that the bed remained horizontal; and I had a fox fur skin that my father had shot one night that I used for comfort blanket; I was horrified many years later to learn that the fuzzy rag I dragged around and chewed on would sell for thousands of dollars on Fifth Avenue but that is another story. At the age of five, my young sister spoke better Tibetan and Nishi than Hindi.

Point is that I was eleven and my younger sister was five at the point that the government announced that we were moving to - along with my father - to Islamabad.  Imagine two kids, one with a wild imagination (me) and another who is convinced that my grandmother's home was the only one in India built of cement and brick (pukka) and everyone "normally" lived in bamboo huts!  Suddenly, this crazy family was assigned to go undercover in Pakistan!

Immediately, my parents decided that I was old enough to be relied on to keep the "cover story going." That meant that I could already basically lie through my teeth, and was now actively encouraged to do so.  I must be one of the world's very few writers who got their training testing their credibility in real life with real and dangerous consequences!

My sister was too young to understand the concept of a cover story. In fact, she was too young to understand the difference between truth and lie.  That made her a liability for the family - which is a pretty awful thing when you are five!

That is when the family came together for one of its weirder ideas! While Dad attended training sessions and briefings at South Block in New Delhi, my mother, I, and various other members of our extended family were entrusted to rewriting my sister's childhood memories.

This meant that we came up with a fictitious identical twin brother (thank god for Bollywood!) for my father - think Ram aur Shyam! Then, an entire life story was constructed for this non-existent brother who was supposed to have migrated to USA after a career in the Indian armed forces.  Once this idea was introduced to my young sister's mind, the entire family collaborated to "alter" her memories: events she had experienced with my father were attributed to this fictitious twin; all photographs of my (and her) father in uniform were re-identified as that of her non-existent uncle instead of her father.

Slowly, over six months, all my sister's childhood memories were subtly altered to ensure that she could not identify any photograph of my father in army uniform. On the eve of our journey to Islamabad, my sister not only did not remember that my father had ever worn an army uniform, she also believed that most of the first five years of her life were untrue and a fantasy she had created.

You may ask if we have since regretted this?

Well, we were supposed to do it for the tricolour - like many other awful and strange and bizarre things our family did in the years afterwards - and so we never thought to contradict. And we still believe that tricolour takes precedence on our lives!

You may also ask if my sister is terribly traumatised by this rewriting of her memories: I am sorry to disappoint you dear reader, but I doubt it: my sister is one of the world's leading anti-terror expert and a respectable citizen to boot!

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Osama bin Laden: What Next for Pakistan

Osama bin Laden was killed earlier this week, a result inevitably determined and irrevocably scheduled on 9/11, although there are many who insist he was on USA's radar well before the destruction of the iconic towers; he may well have been, but on that September morning, his fate was ensured.  That he was killed in Pakistan, in the heart of the country's military establishment, may surprise the naive but seems equally inevitable to someone who not only spent a few years growing up in General Zia's Islamabad but has followed that country closely in the past two decades.

I do not want to go over again over the numerous bits of rumour, political spin and misinformation about the operation that resulted bin Laden's death. Instead, I want to reflect on some of the country's past and perhaps try to glimpse a bit of its immediate future. And for that I go back to a blistering hot summer day in 1980 when we arrived in that country.

For a family used to the rough living of forward camps in India's north-east (one of our homes was a bamboo hut with dirt floors), Islamabad seemed gleamingly modern: wide avenues that seemed to echo Lutyen's Delhi with more than a dash of scenes from American movies.  Rawalpindi and Lahore, however, were similar to crowded, untidy towns from our own side of the border, except that people were either exaggeratedly friendly (something that discomfited me) or erupted into mysterious aggression.  Peshawar was chaotic but friendly and once past the Jamrud Fort - where national government writ did not apply - we felt as safe amongst the Pathan warlords as we would in Indian territory.

Strangely, for a country with two of its neighbours engaged in bloody wars (Afghanistan and Iran) through out the 1980s, with seemingly unending train of refugees pouring into its own impoverished villages and towns, Pakistan seemed single-mindedly focussed on one issue: India. 

It took a long time for me to understand that India posed an existential threat to Pakistan in a way that war on its other borders could not: cleaved from India, the country desperately needed a national  identity that would not only distinguish it clearly from its eastern neighbour but also confirm a sense of self that would not need no reference to India. Unlike most Indians who feel that our shared features are grounds for friendly relations, I learned - thanks to years in Pakistani schools - that those very commonalities threaten the ongoing national project of Pakistani self-hood. 

To ensure this distinct identity, General Zia had, not long before, embarked on a national "Islamisation" programme. The extent and impact of this decades-long national programme is perhaps little understood: with ample Saudi financial support, the programme was meant to steadily construct an "Islamic" national identity, replacing the various streams of the faith and ancient local cultural traditions with the austere Wahhabi version imported from the Gulf.  Over time (and as 30 years of the programme bear fruit now), army and other government institutions were to be populated by these new "true Muslims," with recruitment, promotions, assignments all geared to ensure the gradual cleansing of the old guard who were seen as weak and non-Islamic (and under the new definition, therefore, un-Pakistani enough). 

At the same time, a vast change was brought to the educational curriculum: Pakistan's history was rewritten to highlight its Islamic identity and cleanse it of its Hindu, Buddhist, Jain past. We found a stark example of this at the Takshashila monastery ruins where the government guide insisted that the monks' living quarters were prison cells and the abbotts' rooms - slightly larger than the rest - were the torture and execution chambers. You see, there was no room for Buddhist glory in Zia's newly Islamising nation! None of us who had heard that guide on that day in 1983 were surprised by the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001: Zia's tree was bearing fruit!

Even Urdu - that wondrously hybrid linguistic miracle - suffered the same fate as it was steadily "purified" and words from Sanskrit, Prakrit and other Indic languages were replaced with Arab ones. 

What does all this have to do with Osama bin Laden, you may well ask? Well, this was also the time when Pakistan's Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was increasingly empowered (it had existed since 1948) and with the long-running campaign in Afghanistan - with US support in terms of training and weaponry and Saudi funds - grew in stature. Over time, it also became increasingly strident and a powerful cell within the army, and began to establish itself as a separate centre of power, with vast funds and resources but also able to call on an unofficial cadre of ideologically driven footsoldiers from the jihadist groups it supported, funded, trained and ran. By early 1990s, the ISI was often acting against the wishes and without the knowledge of the main army brass.  At this time, army and civilian governments were often all too happy to claim ISI's successes as their own, even as some expressed reservations in private (Benazir Bhutto was one of these). It is also important to note that over time and given its involvement in Afghanistan, the ISI also became far more imbued with fundamentalist ideology than many other parts of the Pakistan state and populace. 

However, to believe that the army is some how "liberal" is a mistake: three decades of Zia's "Islamisation" have ensured that it also fully partakes of the fundamentalist ideology. There is, however, a basic difference: Pakistan's army also has impressive economic assets and political power; it also is cognizant of the need for working with the rest of the government - even the much-derided politicians - and is circumspect about maintaining its status quo.  This leads the Pakistan army to often make what may seem like "compromises" in the national and international arena, although it must be noted that the institution has been very effective in ensuring that civilians and politicians take the fall for these necessary "compromises." One notable exception to this has been Gen. Musharraf who was eased out with a gentleness that Pakistan's army can only extend to  its own.

With this backdrop in mind, it is worth looking back at the past ten years (although the Kargil fiasco is also a factor in these internal power games). Pakistan's army and civilian government have attempted to walk a very fine line: unable to check the ISI-jihadi bloc, it has attempted to maintain a facade of "alliance" with US and others in the post-9/11 "war on terror," while trying to curtail some of ISI's influence. Unfortunately, ISI (and some parts of the larger army) have shown little interest in the longer term, economic and political interests of the nation. Instead, still convinced that it - not geopolitics - defeated Soviet Union with the fabled "death-of-a-thousand-cuts," it believes it can continue unchecked: the various attacks in India, including the 2008 Mumbai ones as well as its continued machinations in Afghanistan and the country's own tribal areas, are an evidence of its convictions.

Sadly, Pakistan's policies of the past thirty years are ripping it apart today: army with its collaborating wing of civilian polity is increasingly facing a network of terrorist groups backed, funded, armed and often manned by direct and indirect members of the ISI.  This is one answer to the mystery of who the US informed (and didn't inform) and who all in Pakistan government establishment knew about bin Laden's whereabouts!  Given the situation in the country, it is likely that various parts of Pakistan's army, ISI and other goverment agencies knew different bits of information and received varying briefings. Unfortunately for Pakistan (also ultimately for bin Laden), although fortunately for the US, these various Pakistani factions are acting against each other!  

So what happens now? Terror attack warnings have already gone out across the world. There is little doubt that various groups ideologically linked to Al-Qaida will attempt to avenge his death. There is also the issue of succession to bin Laden, although he was - at time of his death - more of a symbol than a major leader of any jihadist terrorist group. However, the top spot is now available to whole array of successors and succession wars will mean that each heir-apparent will attempt to stake his claim by staging competitively spectacular attacks. 

Another aspect to consider is the timing of the operation: by most reliable accounts suggest that US had suspicions about bin Laden's location at least as far back as 2008. It also appears that they knew "almost certainly" by middle 2010 that he was at Abbottabad. It is worth keeping in mind that operations of this kind require a few months of planning, which means they would only ready by the first quarter of 2011. 

However, killing bin Laden would have yielded greater electoral benefit for Barack Obama later in the year, once the campaign had begun to heat up.  So why now? Did US fear that bin Laden would be tipped off by one side in Pakistan's internecine rivalry and escape again? But then given that last three presidents have failed, that would hardly have been a major disaster. Or did the US feel it was being rendered irrelevant to the Middle East by the events of the Arab Spring and killing bin Laden would symbolically help them assert a military, if not political, power that most of the world believes is waning? No doubt there shall be more answers in the next few weeks as more information emerges. 

However, here are my some of my predictions:  in the next eighteen months, we shall see increased violence within Pakistan as the army-civilian establishment goes up against the ISI-jihadi alliance.  The former will be attempting to salvage what is possible of the national cause while the latter will not only be driven by revenge but an increasing threat to their very survival (The Arab Spring also impacts financing and support of Islamist groups by regimes who are increasingly fighting fires on their own home-fronts).  I do not envy the average Pakistani citizen who will be caught in the cross-fire of this "informal" warfare. 

Monday, March 21, 2011

Arab Spring: Shifting Sands, Convulsing History

During the Egypt uprising, one reporter after another repeated the same mantra: the barrier of fear had been broken. And yet, once Mubarak stepped down and the media eye moved elsewhere, that mantra has not been heard nearly as often.

However in the month since Mubarak's downfall, there is ample evidence that the barrier of fear has indeed been broken. Along with that loss of fear, other walls have come tumbling down: of shame, false pride, hypocrisy: as Egyptians stormed the offices of secret police, people re-lived their torture, keen to explain and share.  They stepped inside torture devices to demonstrate the pain and humiliation they had experienced.  Men who had been raped as part of the ritual shaming by secret police spoke of their ordeals, often with heart-breaking humour mingled with awe-inspiring strength.  Young women detained, sexually assaulted and tortured by the Egyptian army have recorded and publicized their testimony in the past month, a cultural shift that is nearly cataclysmic in its symbolic and narrative worth: the shame is not of the victims but of the torturers who thought that rape and sexual assault can brand women as whores!  This is a courage of no small order!

The barrier of fear has also been broken in other parts of the region: Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, Iraq, even the brutally oppressive Saudi Arabia and Syria are seeing unrest by ordinary people with extraordinary courage. The penalty for demanding basic human dignity by these young protesters is the use of tear gas, nerve gas, and even live ammunition at the demonstrations.  Moreover, the regimes are institutionally well-entrenched, identifying the key protesters and leaders, hunting them down, arresting, torturing and killing them beyond the eyes of the cameras.  That makes even the reporting of these protests and human rights abuses by the regimes acts of courage that few of us can begin to imagine.

As an aside, and once again, it is important to point to the involvement of women in these movements. And no, none of them fit the western feminist paradigms although they do echo many of the earlier (pre-colonial) traditions of women warriors and leaders in the region itself.  They are indicators that  it is time for new paradigms, and not only for nonwhite, non-western feminisms!

New paradigms are needed not only for feminism, but also for definitions of statehood, political franchise, strategic relations, political and cultural narratives.  We are in the midst of historic times where none of the old models and certainties can hold.

So what next?

It is obvious that the Arab Spring is not about to come to a standstill.  Despite media warnings and ponderous, well-paid analysts from big name think-tanks, these movements do not look to be dying down. Yes, Bahrain is being brutally crushed by a combination of sectarian political tactics, Saudi and GCC troops, and the regime's own mercenaries from Sunni majority countries. Yes, Libya has gone into armed conflict and international (some would call it western as if the UNSC resolutions and Gaddafi's killings of civilians never happened) intervention. Yes, Saudi and Syria appear to be brutally suppressing their own uprisings.  And yes, Yemen at the time of writing this has lived through a Bloody Friday and moving towards a coup or regime change (only time will tell).

Yet none of the events unfolding fit the currently existing theoretical and political models: Hamas and PL both cracked down on the youth demanding a united Palestinian front. Syrians are out in their thousands to demand change even as Vogue writes glowing articles about the dictator's "democratic" home and fashion plate wife (Hang on to that issue: it will be the equivalent of a praise piece for Marie Antoinette for our times; a true historic artefact!)  Morocco's king seems to be trying to outrun the breezes of Arab spring while Oman seems to be veering madly between reform and deep regime freeze.  Saudi kingdom has once again tried to buy off its population, a measure that seems almost sure to fail.

However, despite the specificities of history, culture and circumstance, the region is tied by a crucial commonality: the fear of regimes seems to have melted. The youth - often educated, disenfranchised, yet politically focussed, are stepping up to demand all the same privileges many in the western world take for granted: security, rule of law, a voice in their own lives and future, opportunity and human dignity.

Of course, many are facing apparently unsurmountable difficulties: the regimes are heavily armed by western weapons, often supported politically and economically by western powers.  Many have deep financial links with the "new global elite" who have little interest in welfare or even fate of the common people. Moreover, for decades, financial and geo-strategic interests have generally trumped human rights. That - I have said before - has been a short-sighted strategy especially on part of the western nations who at least talk of human rights. It is understandably a product of centuries of colonial thinking on part of Europe and by extension the US (and in a limited way, Russia).  Now, with the first breeze of Arab Spring, the lacunae in that policy lie exposed.

There is no stopping the change occurring in the region. Although there may be setbacks, brutal crackdowns, even temporary freezes in the uprisings, we stand at the beginning of a long process of historic change. Most importantly, none of it is really controllable by foreign powers, regardless of their financial, political and military interests. Just as Egypt and Tunisia threw off their dictators by themselves, and are continuing to stumble and struggle on the path to political growth on their own, the rest of the countries shall do the same.

An intervention - as in Libya - may be of temporary help but it is necessary to note that even the opposition council there has insisted that they be allowed to make the change for themselves. This is a key factor to keep in mind: assistance will be welcome (as has been the case in Libya) but the old colonialist paradigm of "saving people from themselves" is a long buried ideal.

It is also worth noting that it is not only western states who are unable to grasp, manage and react to these historic shifts. As the UN resolution on Libya demonstrated, India and Brazil are too tied their own postcolonial histories to be able to see into the future.  Russia and China have also reverted to knee-jerk "west vs rest" divisions, driven of course by their own business and political interests, although these seem shortsighted.

Unfortunately, in not too far future, all nations will have to choose whether their strategic goals match the new realities emerging in the region.  This means emerging powers like Brazil and India will need to decide whether an instinctive anti-western, postcolonial reaction still holds strategic value, or should they attempt to bring their decisions in line with the emerging realities of the region.  Both will have to decide whether they want to play postcolonial victims or take their rightful place in the future as political and economic powerhouses, especially as the latter comes with great responsibility.

As Libya shows, international lines are increasingly blurred and the only real way out is to actually LISTEN to the people: this is a lesson not only for the dictators in the region but also the international community that has long listened to dictators, tyrants and tottering monarchies instead of the people.

In the long term, these convulsions of history are unescapable. They will continue - not on media schedules and not for the next few weeks - but into the next couple of decades as historic changes do!  At the end, those who put short term interests over long term paradigm shifts will find themselves on the wrong side of history.

What the international community needs to do is to find a fragment of the courage displayed by the common people of the region and just learn to let go of old prejudices and paradigms.  It is a brave new world coming our way and while those in the region must live through the convulsions of history at great cost to themselves, the least the rest of us can do is to face them and the changing reality with new models of culture, power, and narratives.